Survival 101: The Rule of Threes

Abraham Maslow, nice guy that he was, never understood the Rule of Threes.  He didn’t do the world of survival much of a favor when he created his Hierarchy of Needs, “a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization.”  Then again, while survival does require a decent amount of psychological health, it certainly doesn’t require self-actualization.  Basically, while Maslow’s approach begins with physiological needs, their inclusion is more axiomatic than absolute, and relies on the premise that one’s situation is generally that of your average human being rather than that of a person thrust into a survival situation.

By the way, by “survival” I’m not talking about “survivalism” that today is more commonly called “prepping.”  The last time I attended a preppers’ meeting, the keynote speaker amazed the audience by filling three lunchroom tables with his entire collection of gear.  The only thing I found amazing is that he would think he, his truck, and the ton of unnecessary gear would last 24 hours in a SHTF scenario before he’s picked off and his truck appropriated and gear distributed to others.  Preppers like to style themselves as people “who actively prepare for emergencies, including possible disruptions in social or political order, on scales from local to international,” but after attending more than 20 different meetings of a dozen different groups around town, trying to help them with the accumulated wisdom and knowledge gained over thousands of years of human activity, I realized many of them were uneducated and ignorant buffoons who were trying to reinvent the wheel themselves and doing a very bad job of it.

Rather, by “survival,” I’m talking about staying alive when someone or something pulls the plug on normalcy to the point where proper prioritization of needs and the procurement thereof means the difference between life and death.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for finding a good deal on a used missile silo and outfitting it for three years of completely sealed and impenetrable living while the radioactive world outside settles down.  Sadly, I don’t have enough money for a year’s worth of food, much less the $10 million required to turn a luxury bunker become into reality.

What I do have is knowledge, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force and it’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school, it’s ejection water survival training, twenty years of refresher training, and a reasonable amount of experience in arctic, woodland, desert, high altitude and aquatic environments.

The one thing that was never taught was the Rule of Threes.  However, after having been to the training schools and while camping in the various environments, I noticed a pattern emerging that just wouldn’t quit:  Everything important to survival occurs in threes, more or less, hence, the Rule of Threes.

Here’s the Rule of Threes in a nutshell, after which we’ll go into it in depth:

  • 3 seconds – time of useful consciousness due to explosive decompression in a vacuum
  • 3 minutes – time of useful consciousness for an athlete in top physical condition without air; you begin to succumb to hypothermia if plunged into icy seawater
  • 3 hours – you can succumb to hypothermia on land
  • 3 days – you die without water
  • 3 weeks – you die without foold
  • 3 months – you die without adequate nutrition
  • 3 years – you’ll give up without other humans

Let’s break this down into its requisite sections, exploring the variables in further detail.

3 seconds

If you were living aboard the International Space Station and it explosively decompressed in a second or two, you’d have about three seconds to act before losing consciousness.  If you were near and airlock and managed to get in, close the door, and activate the pressurization, you might wake up with a headache, but alive.  If you had time to plan for it, as did “Dave” in the movie 2001, by breathing pure oxygen in an environment reduced to about 10 psi, and you had the presence of mind to compress about a third of a lungful of that O2 in order to maintain as much partial pressure of that O2 against the red blood cells coursing through your lungs, then it’s conceivable that you might last 10 to 20 seconds before losing consciousness.

In a modern combat aircraft at higher altitudes, say, FL 430 (43,000 feet), it took us about three seconds to attach our face masks following an explosive decompression when one of the crew module panels blew out, and we were a bit light-headed until the pressurized oxygen kicked in.  Even so, it was a rough ride until we got down to lower altitudes where the pressurized oxygen system wasn’t so fiercely trying to keep us alive.  It’s difficult to talk when you’re breathing against the maximum pressure setting!

The point of this is to have emergency equipment such as a space suit or survival capsule already in use when it happens, or you’re really not going to survive it.

3 minutes

On the other hand, let’s say you’re trapped underwater and needed to hold your breath while awaiting rescue.  My best personal time, which began deep breathing while relaxing all muscles for about three full minutes resulted in 3m23s, and that was towards the end of a summer when I was 21 years old and where I swam half a mile a day, hard.  By the time I was age 40, I could still hold my breath 2:36s.  These days, fifteen years later, I’m good for one minute.  Barely.

Alternatively, if you find yourself in room temperature clothing suddenly plunged into icy ocean water, cold enough to where ice is actually forming, the initial shock is enough to actually kill some people.  Most people will survive, but about 50% will have begun to suffer the effects of hypothermia in just three minutes.

The point here is to dress for the occasion and know your emergency procedures cold.  Pun intended.  Those who work the icy waters off Alaska wear both flotation gear and thermal suits in case they’re swept off the boat.  If workers have to abandon ship, they have “poopy suits” which seal out the water, providing a good deal of thermal protection, stretching minutes of survival time into hours.  If you do any offshore sailing, regardless of the climate, you should become thoroughly practiced with all emergency gear and procedures, as proper use can keep your alive for days instead of mere minutes.

3 hours

If you’re caught on land in your average room temperature clothing when the temperature is significantly below freezing, you’re likely to last about three hours before succumbing to the cold.  Even so, depending just how cold it is and your mental fortitude or the lack thereof, you could become fairly useless in just a few minutes.

On the other hand, with even basic closing such as a fleece jacket and pants with a wind/waterproof shell, decent boots, and proper gloves and a hat, you can last for hours.

Even with absolutely no tools whatsoever, but armed with some knowledge, that’s enough time for you to take steps to ensure you will remain alive for days.

In a similar vein, you might find yourself in a desert, but the same principles apply.  Without the proper knowledge and procedures, you’re not going to last much longer than 3 hours, and might expire much sooner than that.

3 days

In a room temperature environment, you can keep going for about three days before thirst and the effects of dehydration kick you to the curb.

3 weeks

Again, your maximum longevity in a room temperature environment with plenty of water but no food is about three weeks.

3 months

Even if you find enough food, but the nutrition value of that food is lacking, can expire.

3 years

Finally, remember the movie Cast Away.  He’d largely given up and was just going through the motions, even though it had only been 2-1/2 years.  It was until he found a reason for hope that…  🙂

There you have it, the Rule of Threes, an excellent guide to help you survive by allowing you to prioritize what’s most important at the time.  You really don’t want to be expending energy hunting for food, which requires water, when you have not yet first managed to procure water.

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