The Top 3 Survival Essentials to Always Keep in Mind

lean-to shelter

The survival ‘rule of threes’ tells us that you can survive for about: three minutes without air, three hours without shelter in bad conditions, three days without water, and three weeks without food. If you have to think about how you’re going to get air, you’re pretty much already dead, so we will except the first essential.

This article will lay out the three survival essentials to always keep in mind, how you should think about them, and the basics of how how to fulfill them to survive. Let’s get right to it…

You can go Three Hours Without Shelter

When in a survival situation, shelter should be the first thing on your mind. Remember that this doesn’t just mean shelter from the direct effects of the weather, but also warmth (shelter from extremes of cold or heat) and safe haven (shelter from possible threats, like local wildlife). Because of this, your approach to shelter will be different in different environments. You should consider which of these is most pertinent where you are and keep that in the front of your mind as you look for potential sites.

To deal with weather and warmth, you want places with natural overhead cover, and ideally natural insulation. Caves are perfect for this, especially if you can block the entrance and insulate the floor with something (the ground becomes very cold at night, so raised and/or insulated sleeping is advisable).

Fallen trees can also expose miniature cave like spaces beneath their upturned roots. In snowy areas, a snow cave, quinzee or igloo covers all of this, and the best designs (though more difficult to build) include drainage trenches and sleeping platforms.

Having located a site and/or built a shelter, if possible you will want a fire for warmth. In a snow cave, even a single candle and your body heat can often be enough (just watch for the candle getting low, a sign that the oxygen is dropping, so poke a hole in the wall/roof).

In any other setting, a fire inside is probably out the question because of potential carbon monoxide poisoning, but just outside with some low log walls as heat reflectors, it will have a good effect.

When considering possible threats there are to ways to go: security by obscurity (camouflaging your shelter) and security by superiority (looking obvious and intimidating so potential threats are scared of you).

The first is pretty simple: to do. Build your shelter as far as possible from where potential threats are likely to be, so tree houses or caves dug into cliff sides work well. Then make it blend into the background as much as possible (by using whatever is in the background to construct your shelter).

On the other hand, large animals can still smell you and will probably notice the disturbance of the area. You might decide to cover your shelter with as much bright material as possible, and light a big fire nearby, to ward of predators.

You can go Three Days Without Water

The first thing to consider about water is where to find it. Most of water gathering is about mindset and awareness of your surroundings, so you need to be constantly alert.

Start by examining the shape of the land around you: even in very dry areas, you will likely find the most water (even if that isn’t very much) in dips or depressions in the land, since water runs downhill.

If water is a survival priority for you, that means it is for animals and plants too. Plants gather around water course, and looking for an area of especially lush plants (or any plants, an oasis in a desert is the most extreme example) is a sure sign of groundwater.

Wildlife can also help. Small insects and birds (and bees) will be much more common around water than away from it. Birds going to water to drink will fly much straighter, higher and in longer bursts than those having already drunk (which will flit from tree to tree), because those returning are heavier from the water in them.

But the thinking about water doesn’t end with finding it. In a survival situation – especially if you are moving – you are likely to use a lot of water, so be careful with how much you drink, and how you act in the interest of preserving your supply. Ration your water if you don’t have much and need to move away from the source.

Stay out of the sun and in the shade to avoid overheating and sweating too much. Also stay out of the wind, it will evaporate moisture from your skin and cause windchill (which takes energy to counteract, which uses up water). In the same vein, you can reduce sun and wind exposure by keeping yourself covered up ever wonder why desert nomads – natives of the hottest places earth – wear heavy clothes which almost completely cover them?).

Try to move as little as possible (within reason) and make all actions as efficient as possible by using the right tools and techniques. Eat less food, especially less protein, as this requires a lot of water to digest (though eating high moisture foods like oranges is a good idea). Of course, you can also try to urinate as little as possible.

You can go Three Weeks Without Food

Having dealt with water and shelter, turn your mind to food. As already mentioned, if you don’t have much water, try not to eat much, especially protein. On the other hand, if water isn’t a problem, try to eat as much as possible, proteins and fats especially to keep your strength up.

With regard to protein, trapping should be the first method you consider. It can secure small prey like rabbits and squirrels, and crucially uses relatively little energy compared with big game hunting. Smaller game will also take less energy to process (skin, bone, butcher, and prepare for actually eating) than larger ones.

That said, of course if come across a good opportunity to fell a moose, don’t pass it up! After trapping, fishing and active hunting can also good ways to hunt, and fishing lines can be left overnight or while you are away doing other things.

In an ideal world though, you don’t want to eat just protein, so you will also need to forage to fulfil your other nutritional needs (vitamins, minerals, and fibre especially). Dandelions, nettles, wild asparagus and wild onions make great filler food, and berries and nuts will contribute valuable nutrients.

The Fourth Essential (or perhaps the only real essential)

I said at the beginning that the survival rule of threes teaches us we can survive about three minutes without air, three hours without shelter, three days without water and three weeks without food. This is all true, but it forgets the ‘hidden essential’, often mentioned last in the list: you can only survive three seconds without hope. It sounds silly, but seriously, without a positive attitude and a belief that you’re going to make it, you definitely won’t survive.

So keep that in mind, and even in a rainstorm in the middle of the night, freezing cold, soaked to the skin, starving and dehydrated, you can at least look up and wonder at the beauty of the stars and know that there is something worth pushing on for.

Final Thoughts

So to sum up: you can only go three hours without shelter, so consider that first, using your environment as much as possible for weather protection and insulation.

You can go a maximum of three days without water, so keep your wits about you when looking for it, and be careful to conserve it once you’re hydrated. You can do three weeks without food (though you wouldn’t want to and would be very weak by the end) so as soon as possible start setting traps, and forage for other food on your way.

Finally of course, you only go three seconds without hope. With no will to survive, you won’t survive, so stay positive.

This is far from an exhaustive survival guide though. Other (arguably essential) things to consider include:

  • Tools Having the right ones when you set out, or making them as you go).
  • Equipment It’s not much use knowing how to lash a shelter together or use a bow drill if you don’t happen to carry rope around with you all the time. So either do carry some basic survival supplies, or learn to make everything you could need (ideally noth is your best bet, as supplies are more reliable in the short term but will run out).
  • Local knowledge If possible, knowing the conditions, environment, local edible foods etc. if a huge bonus in a survival situation. If you’re going out hiking or off to a far flung land, do some research just in case.
  • Communication The easiest way to survive a tough situation is to get out of it. The easiest way to get out is to call for help, on a radio, with a flare, using signal mirrors, whatever.
  • First Aid No amount of water food or shelter will cure a broken leg, but with the right training you might be able to splint it.

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About Nick O'Low

Nick O'Low first went camping at six, lit his first fire by seven, and learnt to throw knives at eleven. He made his first knife from a kit he was given for his thirteenth birthday, and by fourteen was making solo overnight trips, and learning to read the stars. Despite an extensive experience of the more practical aspects of bushcraft, his current interest lie in the philosophical and theoretical aspects of navigation, harmony with one's environment and learning to truly live, wherever you might find yourself.
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