Wilderness Survival Rules and Tenets

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Wilderness Survival Rules and Tenets

It was odd and unfortunate that Chris Denham requested an article about wilderness survival on a day when three of my peers found themselves on a life raft in the infamous Bering Sea. Their lives were saved by the wilderness survival training from our annual competencies. These three were fortunate. Six other medevac professionals lost their lives amongst a handful of crashes in Alaska last year. I used to just go outside and ‘play’ survival, but now I can’t escape it. The more I study it, the more effort I put into preventing accidents, the more respect I give to the “Rule of 3s” and the more I believe in my own five tenets.

Staying warm is of the utmost importance for survival.

Attitude often determines who lives or dies and always determines who has fun doing it.

Wilderness survival truly does begin with prevention. Most accidents originate before the graphic catastrophe because the victim failed to care for their brain. Keeping your brain alert requires keeping your body temp at 98.6 degrees, staying hydrated, staying nourished to keep organs functioning and blood sugar levels stable, and ensuring ample rest/recovery. In hard times, a healthier brain can better prioritize actions.

The Rule of 3s

To prioritize actions, we must know what to value. The “Rule of 3s” tells us what our body values in order to sustain life. It states: “We can survive three minutes without oxygen (or in icy water), three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food.” Knowing this, we can align our priorities to first address life-threatening conditions. When life is preserved, we can work to secure shelter, then fire, then water, then food.


Since we can only survive three minutes without oxygen, the first action in trauma management is “address life-threatening injuries” and involves keeping the blood oxygenated and circulating inside the body. “Without oxygen” does not have to mean that there is no oxygen in the air we inhale. Oxygen may be present but if you can’t get it into your body or can’t move it to your tissues, the effect will be the same. Every year, numerous outdoor enthusiasts die from shock caused by bee stings, collapsed lung from a hard fall, drowning, spinal cord injuries, suffocating beneath avalanches, or bleeding out after a severe wound. My peers instruct courses such as CPR and “Stop the Bleed” to teach lay-people how to recognize and react to emergencies and shock. “Wilderness First Responder” is a better certification for avid hunters.

drinking water is a must for wilderness survival


We hunters are susceptible to obtaining life-threatening wounds. The initial action with severe bleeding is always to apply pressure to the wound. If sustained direct pressure does not stop the bleeding, apply more. Avoid using folded shirts or stacks of gauze to cover bleeding wounds. These items are great for absorbing blood but you don’t want to absorb blood, you want to keep the blood in the body! Use your hand to apply precise pressure to the wound and then wrap it in a pressure bandage only after the bleeding has subsided. If direct pressure fails to stop the bleeding, apply a tourniquet. They are easily purchased and light to carry. If you fear they are just another thing to remember and get left behind, consider using YouTube to learn how to make and apply one. Your belt, neck-gaiter, rifle sling, or backpack straps are improvised tourniquets that are rarely left behind and have saved many lives.

a shelter set up in the wilderness


“Only three hours without shelter?” Sheltering yourself from the dangerous situation is the next priority. Instead, of “build a lean-to” think, “Get to a place where your brain can create logical thought because it’s no longer thinking, ‘WE’RE GONNA DIE!’” Escape from the cold water, the path of the avalanche, the line of fire, the hurricane-force winds, the blizzard, the torrential rain, etc. Then, start thinking about how to improve your situation. Maybe you do need to build a bivy shelter or start walking out. Take care of your brain’s immediate needs and the answer will become clear.

a fire can be a life savor when it comes to wilderness survival


After addressing life-saving concerns and removing yourself from further danger, contacting rescue/help is a priority. A good morsel of advice is to make arranging help as fast and easy as possible. Pre-program the numbers for your rescue services along with SOS messages. Do it today! They are much harder to enter when your hand is severed, you can’t breathe, or blood is obscuring your vision. Satellite text message devices have advantages over phones because they relay your GPS coordinates and push out a signal when conditions inhibit reliable phone connectivity. These devices can also be your navigation/map device during your excursion and pacify your addiction to cell phones by giving you a blue screen to interact with.

To this point, we’ve just discussed skills. No self-respecting hunting magazine would be complete without gear recommendations. Here are a handful of things that I bring with me on every trip into the woods and wilds.

Steve Opat pulling fish out of the water

Medication: ultralight and ultra-effective

Similar to the oxygen situation, “three days without water” concerns more than just three days without consuming it. A stomach bug can be just as catastrophic as a traumatic event. Nausea medications can ensure you do not experience three days without water when vomiting and/or diarrhea are disabling you. By mitigating vomiting, you can consume and retain enough liquids and electrolytes to keep pace with the diarrhea and maintain (some level of) homeostasis. (*Author’s note. Get hydrated sip by sip. Drinking can stimulate the gut and trigger more defecation and this commonly deters people from wanting to consume anything. Just keep drinking. If you don’t throw it up, it will help you.)

These meds are affordable and can be prescribed (without conflict) by your doctor.

Narcotic pain meds can also be life savers. Controlling pain can allow your brain to re-engage and address your priorities. They can help you endure the miserable hours of securing shelter, walking towards help or waiting for it to arrive. If you have a prescription from a previous surgery or injury, save some for your backcountry first aid kit. DO NOT do anything illegitimate or illegal to get them if you do not have a physician’s order.

The most important medications to bring are those prescribed by your doctor. Don’t take medication vacations. Also, if you have sleep apnea, find a way to address it. Managing your chronic conditions is essential to your success and prevention of severe incidents.

a good sleeping pad is crucial to wilderness survival

A closed-cell foam pad like the Thermarest Z-lite is a critical barrier between you and the cold/moist ground.

Closed-cell foam

It would be a shame if your non-life-threatening broken leg caused you to die of hypothermia. A good pad like the Thermarest Z-lite is a critical barrier between you and the cold/moist ground. They can also serve you throughout the day as you are glassing, shooting, napping, or just kneeling to fill a water bottle. These can serve as an excellent long-bone splint or knee brace. Splints are another item on which to educate yourself. Stabilizing an injured extremity can control your pain to restore your brain. There are many serviceable splints in a creative person’s gear list, such as a knife sheath, book, phone, gun scabbard, arrow, etc.

Steve Opat about to draw back his bow in the wilderness

Steve Opat is a flight nurse in Alaska and an avid outdoorsman and hunter.

Fire aids

Carry several teak candles and bic lighters in both your pants and jacket pockets. The small flame generated from your lighter or spark stick now only has to burn long enough to ignite a candle wick. Like the fire that humans evolved around, the warmth and light of a candle, though small, can provide a primal sensation that we’re safe and everything is going to be okay.

The last thing to share are my five tenets for wilderness survival:

  1. Your brain is always your most valuable tool.
  2. No wilderness survival tools/skills matter if you can’t correct immediate life-threatening situations. 
  3. Everything you carry in the backcountry should have multiple purposes, one of them should pertain to wilderness survival. 
  4. The only wilderness survival tools you can depend on are those that are on your person. 
  5. Attitude often determines who lives or dies and always determines who has fun doing it. 

Happy hunting and be safe.

Steve Opat



Steve Opat

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