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Surviving the Extremes: The Rule of Threes

January 19, 2022

by Dan Clements, Education Manager

The human body is a wonder of nature. The combination of different attributes and traits has
allowed humans to survive and flourish in all corners of the planet. With wits and technology
humans have been able to thrive in all kinds of environments, from the depths of the ocean to
near-earth orbit, humans are experts at survival. But even with the resilience to survive in some
of the harshest environments, the human body does have limitations.

In survival situations, people often refer to what is called the “Rule of Threes.” This concept
helps tell us how long the human body can survive without air, water and food under normal

Humans can survive:
● Three minutes without air (oxygen)
● Three days without water
● Three weeks without food

But remember these are just guidelines. There are exceptions that push the human body to its
limits. Let's take a look at some of these exceptions and explore what the human body can do.


The average person can probably hold their breath for about one minute and would likely start
to feel very uncomfortable going past that mark. But did you know that three minutes is
possible? With a little practice and the proper technique, you can increase your time.
The world record for voluntarily holding your breath was actually broken early last year. Budimir
Šobat (Croatia) held his breath for a staggering 24 minutes and 37 seconds! This was no fluke.
Budimir trained for years to break this record. Helping him achieve this incredible feat was
something called the mammalian diving reflex. This function of the human (and other
mammals) body allows us to hold our breaths longer than normal underwater by changing our
heart rates to conserve oxygen and prioritize where it goes (i.e. vital organs).

Water is essential for the human body to function. We are made from mostly water and need it
to keep our bodies functioning properly. How long any given person can survive without water
depends on many variables and can be different from person to person. In harsh conditions, like
extreme heat, the body could give out in a matter of hours instead of days. There are no official
records for humans surviving without water, in fact, trying to find out would be EXTREMELY
DANGEROUS. However, there is a story of a man, Andreas Mihavecz, who allegedly survived
18 days without food or water while locked in a holding cell. There is debate surrounding this
story, but the bottom line is: humans need water to live so stay hydrated.

Living without food is not something that most people would like to think about. Surviving for three
weeks without food is the limit for most and as you might imagine, it would not be a pleasant
experience. Food is important for human survival because it provides nutrients that provide energy for
activities and growth, and to keep the body functioning normally. Under some circumstances,
humans are able to go much longer without food, especially when compared to time without
water or air. According to Guinness World Records, the longest time a human has gone without
solid food is 382 days. This record was set in 1966 by Angus Barbieri (UK) who spent just over
a year only drinking water, black coffee and tea and taking vitamins and supplements. During
that time Barbieri lost almost 300 pounds. Even though Angus was closely monitored by doctors
during his fast, it’s not recommended anyone attempt to do the same.

The “Rule of Threes” applies to most people in a survival situation but only covers a human's
most basic needs: air, water, and food. The examples shared here are exceptions to the rule
and are at the extreme limit of what the human body can handle. We need to consider more
than just air, water and food. Environmental factors like weather, shelter, temperature and
natural predators can also be important factors to human survival.

If you are interested to learn more about how you would fare in a survival situation we have a
treat for you. Worst Case Scenario: Survival Experience is coming soon (02/11/22) to
Imagination Station. This exhibit is a hands-on experience that provides you with instructions for
everything you need to know when encountering these real-life survival scenarios.