Wilderness Survival – Rules of Three

The Rules of Three in wilderness survival, indicate you can survive for 3 minutes without air/oxygen. You can survive for 3 hours without shelter in a harsh environment. You can survive for 3 days without water if sheltered, and you can survive 3 weeks without food, if you have water and shelter.

In typical survival situations, you absolutely must make it your most critical priority to secure a water source, since increased dehydration seriously compromises other important body functions. Lack of water negatively impacts your ability to execute even basic survival skills, long before 3 days have passed.

Although extreme cases of individuals surviving longer than 3 days without water before succumbing to dehydration are documented, these are rare exceptions rather than the rule and should never be tested!

Hydration Requirements

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Depending on environmental factors, temperature, weather and elevation, the human body loses as much as 1 gallon of water, per day, through perspiration and urination. This fluid loss must be replenished on an ongoing basis. Some ways to prevent excessive dehydration is to stay in a shady area, establish a protective shelter, have plenty of rest, avoid overexertion and stay cool. Always avoid excessive caffeinated beverages and alcohol consumption in survival situations as they will cause your body to become even more dehydrated.


It is essential to seek a potable water source immediately and to replenish this source before you run out. Fruits and vegetables and other wild edibles contain some moisture which may help with dehydration, but securing a good source of potable water is crucial.


Since dehydration is inevitable, a viable water source needs to be secured as soon as possible. The first sign of dehydration includes weakness, thirst, diminished mental capacity, loss of appetite, dark foul smelling urine, nausea, followed by confusion and unconsciousness.

Head Downhill

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My first tip for locating a fresh potable water source is a fairly simple one. Travel downhill to low lying areas. One geographical feature of fresh running water is its ability to find the lowest point in any landscape. By following the laws of gravity, water always flows downhill and takes the easiest path along the way. Investigate the lay of the land in an area chose for your shelter, look for gorges, valleys or any landforms sloping downwards. A natural depression where two mountain peaks converge, usually forms a natural funnel for rainwater runoff, as well as natural spring flow.

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Note that any energy you expend in search of potable water will sap much-needed nutrients and possibly make you more dehydrated, so any activity you do becomes a calculated risk. You also do not want to become lost or disoriented when searching of potable water. In some cases, night-time travel is a cooler option though I would advise against that for danger involved with bush travel after dark. As elementary and misguided as it may seem, travelling downhill will eventually bring you to a water source.

Presence of Vegetation 

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One wilderness feature to look for in your quest for water, is the presence of natural vegetation, since plant growth requires water to exist. Even areas that appear bleak and barren of vegetation, any green sections you do discover will inevitably point to ground water present.

Freshwater springs

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Locating a natural freshwater spring is like winning the jackpot in any survival situation. Natural springs, or aquifers as they are sometimes called, may be found practically anywhere. A naturally occurring spring is a location where ground water appears on the surface due to cracks and crevices in the ground, and is forced upwards with pressure from beneath. I have located natural springs in many landscapes over the years: rocky , sandy , and even areas with high clay content. Barren hillsides that exhibit a small patch of green, for example, are a good indicator for presence of a natural water source.

Most natural spring water is safe for consumption due to natural filtration process of percolating through layers of soil, rock and other substrate. In the mountains around my hunt camps, there are several natural springs I visit regularly for a much needed drink. Avoid consuming water collected in pools or crevices that become stagnant, and open to contamination. Running water is always the way to go!

Animal Trails and Tracks

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What better way to locate the presence of water than monitoring travel patterns of the animals using the same resources? Since wild animals require water as do humans, they have an advantage over us with a keen sense of smell and ability to travel distances in shorter amount of time. Deer and other unguents like moose and elk consume water early morning and evening, much in the same way that they feed; in a crepuscular manner, meaning dusk and dawn. Locate game trails that appear to be heading downhill running the length of a valley, or ridge. These trails often pass through a natural water source.

Rain Water

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One often overlooked source of fresh water is the collection of rain water. Rainwater is substantial and generally easier to collect in more temperate climates with high rain fall. In a situation where you are unable to purify other water sources, and no freshwater springs are located, rain water is the only safe water source left. Since rain water is naturally purified during the evaporation process which creates it, the most difficult part is finding a means to collect it. Hollowed out logs, leaves and vegetations formed into funnels, or scoops, are suitable for collecting rainwater. Camping tarps and raingear may also be fashioned into a water collection device with a little ingenuity.

Ice and Snow

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Ice and snow is another excellent water source but does require a heat source in order to melt it making it suitable for consumption. Areas with copious outcroppings, providing water runoff and ice build-up along rock faces, are great locations. Each spring, I marvel at a collection of ice on a rock face beside a lake I fish, occasionally chipping some off to melt for a drink. When travelling in winter, melting snow is another option and perhaps the easiest in northern regions during winter. Since snow averages only 10% water content, Keep in mind you will need to melt large quantities in order to get enough to drink.

Start Digging

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Once you have exhausted all other water source options, it may be time to dig your own source of fresh water. Since rain water fluctuates throughout the year, ponds, creeks and vernal pools usually dry-up in the summer. There is a good chance that fresh water is still present underneath. Any areas that appear muddy will have water close to the surface and not require a lot of digging. By digging a hole and allowing the water to seep-in, there is a natural filtration process at work to help purify that water, if you do not have a heat source for boiling and purifying.

Morning Dew

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Another less common option for collecting small amounts of potable water is capturing morning dew. One technique is to strap absorbent cloths around your ankles and walk through the tall grass in meadows. The morning dew will collect in the absorbent cloth and can be wrung-out into a collection container. This method should only be used far from agricultural fields, pesticide use or any areas with poisonous plants.

Final Word on Water

Securing a potable, uncontaminated source of fresh water takes planning and investigation. By following the tips in this feature, you will have a good head start in securing that much needed source of life supporting goodness. Remaining hydrated is critical to survival as the survival Rules of Three state; you only have maximum 3 days to survive without water, so time is of the essence.

Learn more about Bushcraft in my other article on Wilderness Shelter Building.