The Rule of Threes

Nature: Survival
10-12 years, 12-14 years
Anticipate Time
1.5 hours min
2-5, 5-15, 15-30
Determination, Endurance, Patience, Respect


An introductory exercise to familiarise Pathfinders with priorities of survival and camping. They set up tents, play a game and decorate a cake with a survival theme to learn the ‘Rule of Threes’.

Through participation in this Pursuit, the Pathfinder will:

  1. Demonstrate how to set up a tent
  2. Participate in a team game
  3. Create a food decoration showing survival techniques
  4. Recall survival priorities

Scripture Focus

Memory Verse

Psalms 91:14
'Because he loves me,' says the LORD, 'I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.'

God loves us so much that He is constantly calling us to Him. He has promised that He will protect us and give us peace, no matter how tough the situation. However, we will always have trouble, and we need to be prepared to deal with it, using our mind and our trust in God as our greatest survival tools.


  1. Find a park area where the Pathfinders can set up tents
  2. Hide tents, water bottles and cups in the area
  3. Make up clues for where to find the tents
  4. Make up a few colours of icing mixture so that Pathfinders can decorate a sponge cake to represent the ‘Rule of Threes’
  • A tent for each group of 4-6 Pathfinders (don’t forget hammers for pegs if needed)
  • A number of roller bandages
  • A sponge cake for each group of Pathfinders
  • ‘Decoration Stuff’ and utensils for decorating the cake: Icing mixture in a couple of colours, smarties, sprinkles, mixed lollies, etc…
  • A cup for each Pathfinder and a couple of water bottles per group


1. Take Pathfinders to a park or bush area where the Pursuit is set up and tents, cups and water bottles are hidden. (You could, of course, do the activity without the hiding and the clues… it’s just to add fun). 
Start by having Pathfinders time how long they can hold their breath. How well did they do? Could anyone go a whole minute? Ask: How long do you think it would take to die if you didn’t have any air? The answer is that it would take about 3 minutes.
Emphasise to Pathfinders that anytime they are in the wilderness, they will need to rely on their knowledge, skills and tools to survive. This Pursuit is about learning how to ‘think’ straight in order to cope with a wilderness situation.2. Introduce the rule of threes by putting on the board the rule of threes in Appendix, but without the ending of each one. Ie… You can live 3 minutes without… You can live 3 hours without… Ask Pathfinders to each fill in the blanks and see what kind of answers you get. Be sure to affirm all answers as good guesses. (You may want to have a little prize (Yeah Minties!) ready for anyone who actually get the right answers. 

Talk to them about the other priorities of caring for their health and taking care of any injuries they might have. (As in Appendix) If you have some roller bandages, you may want to have them pretend that a few people have been injured and they need a splint and bandage.3. Divide Pathfinders into groups of about six (depending on how many tents you have) and remind that the second rule of threes says that in an extreme situation you might only last 3 hours without shelter. Describe such a situation (A snow blizzard or blazing desert heat) and give them each a clue to solve to find their tents. When they find them, have them come back and work out how to put up the tents. This may be the first time they have done it. Help them and try to make it a fun experience.
Talk to them about what they might use for a shelter if they didn’t have a tent with them.

4. The next rule of threes is that they will only last 3 weeks without water. Explain how important it is to always keep drinking. If you are thirsty it’s too late! This should already be common knowledge with the emphasis on drinking water at school! If you can, have a water bottle and cups hidden for each group of six and have a treasure hunt to find them. Then line up the groups for a game of ‘dog and bone’ with a water bottle.

Dog and Bone
This is a simple, classic game. Line up two teams opposite each other, sitting about 3-4 metres apart with a water bottle in the middle. Number each team member from opposite ends to the other team, so that each person will have a corresponding number on the other side. When you call a number, both people with that number will come to the middle to try and get the water bottle. If one person picks up the bottle, they will try to get back to their spot without getting touched. If they make it, they get the point. If they get touched, they lose the point. Either player can grab the bottle and try to get back to their spot. However, if one player accidentally kicks the bottle, or picks it up and drops or throws it, then they will lose the point.5. The next rule of threes or priority for survival, is to find food. Again, use the information in the Appendix to talk about this point, and then explain that each team will have a cake decorating competition. They will have one sponge cake each with ‘decoration stuff’ (See Materials) and will need to portray the rule of threes in their decoration.

After you judge the cakes, let the Pathfinders go to their tents and have a ‘survival party’ with their survival cake and water bottles. (Make sure you have them clean up inside the tents when they’re finished!)6. When they have finished the cake, have each Pathfinder write the rule of threes in their Journal, and review to make sure that they remember this rule as a basic survival rule, whether they are camping or in a genuine survival situation. Then do the debrief questions and enjoy the rest of the afternoon!


Leaders, be sure to follow up on discussing when and how the Pathfinders saw the memory text in action throughout this Pursuit. 
Select from the questions below:

  • Can you remember the “Rule of Threes”?
  • Did you have a difficult time putting up the tent?
  • How many times have you been camping in a tent?


  • Did you guess the rule of threes at the beginning of the Pursuit?
  • Which rule do you think would be the easiest one to forget?


  • Do you think that you would be able to remember the ‘Rule of Threes’ if you were really in trouble?
  • What do you think is the MOST important tool that you would need to survive? (Answer: your mind… attitude and knowledge)
  • Where does Jesus come into the rule of threes?


  • Do you want to learn more about camping?
  • Will you stay involved in Pathfinders?
  • Would you like to learn more about God too?



Pathfinder leaders: You will find more information here than you will need to teach young Pathfinders, but it is useful information. You will need to summarise in order to teach your Pathfinders.

The Rule of Threes

By Ron Hood, Ed.D.

The Rule of Threes is an uncomplicated way to remember the basic priorities of the human organism, and it is a good starting point for an exploration of survival priorities. The Rule of Threes serves as a priority list for any outdoor activity and is a good way for campers to remember what is important around a campsite as well as for a lost person to remember how to survive.

The Rule of Three’s looks like this:

A person can live for:

Three minutes without air

Three hours without shelter

Three days without water

Three weeks without food

Three months without love

Let’s take a quick look at these priorities and try to understand them a bit better.


If you can’t breathe, make it so you can. If you can’t make it so, die. This is a good time to think about other basic life functions too. Think of the ABCs of first aid. This is a time to check to see if you are injured.

First aid is not just the basic medical needs, it is the primary way in which you act to survive. DO NOT PANIC, remain calm and do what you have to do to take care of YOU. STOP means Sit, Think, Observe, and Plan. It is the most intelligent thing you can do when you realize you are lost or stranded. The most important element is to keep your brain functioning rationally, this is basic first aid for survival. Analyze your needs before every trip, create a medical checklist and carry a small personal kit with you at all times. Most survival situations require only dressing for small cuts, bruises and personal medication needs, make sure you know what you have with you and how to use it. Do not over pack, pack what you feel you will need to carry with you at all times. Concentrate on being found, pack a picture of your family in with your gear to remind you of the reasons to remain calm and to survive. Stop and take stock of any life threatening or potentially dangerous injuries and do what you can to take care of yourself.


Shelter is the means by which you protect your body from excess exposure from the sun, cold, wind, rain or snow. Anything that takes away or adds to your overall body temperature can be your enemy. Clothing is the first line of shelter protection, have the right clothes for the right environment. Always have a hat.

I frequently ask new survival students the question, “If you were lost in a blizzard without your gear what would you do?” The answer I hear most (and which confounds me), sounds something like this. “Build a fire and search for wild food.” I can see it now: lost in a howling blizzard, the wind whipping the trees to rubble, frost forming on even the memories of warmth, while our hopeful survivor tunnels through snowdrifts in search of “wild edibles.” Without proper shelter, he would probably die within three hours.

It seems obvious our survivor must react immediately to the threat posed by the cold blowing storm. Only hours of life remain if the basic shelter needs are not met. Miserable and hungry, cold and scared, but alive if the shelter is properly constructed.


Water is the third priority whether you find yourself at the ocean in the desert or in a snow storm. I ought to mention at this point that woodsmen and hunters sometimes find themselves uncomfortable and a little under the weather a day or two after the beginning of a trip. Often this is the result of dehydration. Though they are drinking much more water than they normally do, they still do not consume enough to compensate for the increased effort they are putting into their days. Drink lots of water, with a little salt in the food to stave off those agonizing midnight muscle cramps. Just a happy thought here. Drink or die.

DO NOT eat plants you do not know. Never drink urine. Always assume that you will need extra food and water when you plan your trip. Pack energy bars and candy in your pockets at all time, just in case. If possible boil all water 10 minutes plus one minute for every 1000 feet above sea level. Strain water through your handkerchief to remove large particles. Try to drink only in the cool of the evening. Never wait until you are without water to collect it. Have some poly zip bags to collect and store water. Never eat any wild berries that you are not sure of what they are.

Water will be necessary to assist the energy extraction processes the body uses when converting fat into energy. Lack of water, the third priority, can stop us from utilizing even our own reserves. With dehydration we discover another interesting relationship between water and our chances for survival.


Food. Those four letters draw pictures in more imaginations than most four letter combinations. How important is it? If you don’t eat your habitual meals, how do you feel? Not too energetic, eh? A little impatient, a bit short tempered with a funny thrumming in the old gut? The important thing to remember is that the sensation you feel in the pit of the old grub grinder is not a sign that the body is low on power. It is only telling you that your belly tank is running on empty. It isn’t telling you that for every extra pound of fat on your body (Thank you, Big Mac!) you have nearly 4000 Calories of energy available. 4000 Calories can do a lot of work. Is that energy available to do work now? Well…

There’s the catch, it isn’t. In fact the reserve fat calories probably won’t be ready to give themselves up for 18 to 24 hours from the time of your last meal. In a way, that’s a comforting thought. You really only have to survive for 18-24 hours on an empty stomach, and then you’ll find things are getting a little easier, energy wise.

Hunger can cause enough discomfort during survival emergencies that you might make some decisions that will hasten your movement into the next incarnation. Baby bush-munchers sometimes forget the Rule of Threes when the low food light goes on. A suggestion… To get used to the feeling of an empty stomach, fast (don’t eat) for 24 hours once a month. At the very least do a 24 hour fast every three months. Once you’ve completed a 24 hour fast, go for 48! Yeah, Team!

It’s important to understand that most people caught in a survival situation will be rescued or find their way out if they survive the first 24-48 hours of the emergency. The body reserves must be carefully guarded until the cavalry of fat can come charging to the rescue. We must do what is necessary to satisfy the first survival priorities of air, shelter, and water until we get a handle on the fat reserves. After that there are many simple and wondrous things that can be done to assure continued survival for prolonged periods.

The Other Priority, Love

We’ve talked about all of the most important priorities with the exception of the mind crippler. Love. I suppose one might say that there are many kinds of love. Spiritual, emotional, physical and mixes and matches of those. For the survivor, the word is tied to the word HOPE.

It has been noted that many excellent survivors who find themselves trying to make it on the land, alone, can do so with a great degree of success for a couple of months. Then about three months down the line comes a sort of crisis. They feel the loneliness, the homesickness, the tension, and sometimes give up hope. When this happens there is a definite, if invisible, threat to survival. Those who manage to rally, to drag themselves through the barrier, will feel a new energy and a renewed purpose.

Hope stays alive as long as the survivor concentrates on using every available method to keep the body alive and wait for help. This means that signalling should always be a task for the survivor. Signalling is having available the means and ability to alert any and all potential rescuers that you are in need of HELP. Fire, flashing light, bright color markers, flags, mirrors, whistles all will help you be found. Three fires in a triangular form are a recognized distress signal. Carefully bank your signal fires to prevent igniting surrounding area. Use regular signal mirrors only when you can see a plane, or people in the distance. Make smoky fire with organic material over the fire during the day to attract attention. Lay out ground to air signal in open field, S.O.S. from rocks, logs or colored clothing, whatever will be seen against the background. Most search and rescue parties use aircraft as a primary method of sighting.

Sometimes the personal crisis never occurs, the individual may become a hermit and live life as a part of the natural order. Sometimes the crisis is immediate and as deadly as any of the other crisis waiting to suck the energy from the hopeless victim. This is the time when faith and love of the self becomes most important. Concepts like self-reliance, self-confidence, and self-sufficiency help to fill the void of loneliness. Hang in there.