The Power of Three: Shelter, Water & Food

Survival | 0 comments


This is the number to keep in mind when you travel into the wilderness. It’s a simple enough number and remembering it may save your life. When I first began to learn about wilderness travel the first three things that I was taught was the rule of threes. You can survive for three hours in extreme weather without shelter, three days without water and three weeks without food.

As you prep for a trip, or just go about your daily life, keeping these three things in mind can play an integral role in how well you fare. I would like to expand on each of these a bit and share some key insights into each.


Our bodies are made of cells, and each cell is like a sun, like a fire. They consume fuel through a process like combustion and the byproducts of this are heat and light. At any given moment our bodies are constantly losing and gaining heat in these processes. We lose heat through five different forms or ways: conduction (contact with a colder surface), respiration (we breathe out warm air), convection (our bodies are always working to warm the air against our skin to match our body temp), evaporation (sweat and the passage of water out of us), and radiation (same as the sun, we radiate heat).

When we think of shelter we may think of our homes and houses, our cars, or our clothes. Shelter is critical for survival in all climates. We are not made for extremes of anything. Our first line of shelter is clothing. When traveling into the wild it is important to know what type of elements you may encounter and bring clothing appropriate for the season and climate. Good quality and durable clothing is your first priority. Cotton is never a great option. It is slow to dry and wick moisture so if travelling or sweating it will amuse us to cool too quickly as our body works to keep that warm air temp around us. Materials like wool, and synthetics that pull moisture from our bodies are best for insulating and keeping warm.

When I would teach winter survival to youth in Minnesota winters I would always teach kids to tuck layers into each other and overlap layers wherever possible. The goal is to reduce the rate of heat loss and capture any heat radiating off of the body.

After clothing and proper footwear for the Elements comes your other shelter- tent, car, tarp and anything else that provides a barrier against the elements. Things as simple as an extra large contractor grade trash bag can serve as a shelter in a pinch, as well as smaller plastic shopping bags for things like hands and feet. Keep in mind however that anytime you use something like a plastic trash bag or plastic sheeting you are creating a vapor barrier and so as your body evaporates, and sweats that moisture will also stay trapped so you have to be careful of getting soaked inside your shelter.

Know your shelter whether it is a tent or tarp. Take time to set it up before you go out. Try setting it up blind folded, or with one hand/arm. If you spend lots of time in the wild knowing how to set up shelter in the dark, or with an injury can be indispensable.

When setting up your shelter it is also important to be aware of location (placement) and environment around you. Watch out for dead standing trees, water run off, animal sign. All of these things can make a perfectly set up shelter useless within minutes.

Prior to travelling to a wilderness area it is always a good idea to research the area that you will be travelling into. What type of trees and plants are in the area that might be helpful in constructing an emergency shelter? What are the extremes of weather that you may encounter for the time of year?

Lastly are the two other elements of survival- water and food. Both of these simply play a role in maintaining healthy conditions of your body (your primary shelter). Dehydration will rapidly affect your bodies ability to stay warm (or cool in desert temps), it will affect your muscles, brain function and clarity of thought. Drinking lots of clean and safe water in the wild is incredibly important. When travelling into the wilderness it is always a good idea to have to ways to treat and purify water. One main system whether a pump, filter or simple boil method and one back up emergency system (chlorine or iodine tablets). Knowing ways to procure water without these is also good knowledge to have should the need arise such as constructing a solar still, dew collection and others.

Food- cooking over a fire is one of the most rewarding experiences and parts of camping. Having the right food and enough can also make or break your trip. What food you bring with you into the wild largely depends on a few things, how long you’ll be out for, what you like to eat, the season of the year and temperature and what type of activity you’ll be doing. Typically in the wild we burn through more calories than we do in our day to day lives so when planning meals keep this in mind.

Pack food that is dense and full. Sugars and carbohydrates are good for shorter energy bursts and warmth but for longer lasting energy and longer lasting burn times go with proteins as much as you can. Fats and oils are also helpful in cold climate or winter travel in the wild. When it comes to food you also need to take precaution to keep your food stores out of reach from wild animals which will smell it from a distance and may go to great lengths to procure your stores and supplies!

One other useful tip in regards to food is to research and be aware beforehand of what might be available to you in the event of an emergency. Edible plants? Animals? Whenever I would travel to a new wilderness area rather than learn all of the edible plants in an area I would research and make sure that I could identify all of the harmful and poisonous plants in an area. This way the rest of the forage would be fare game, and I was always more confident my ability to ID the bad plants.

Whenever and wherever you step into the wild, be aware, alert, educated and prepared and your time spent there will be more rewarding, comfortable and life giving.

Happy trails!


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