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SURVIVAL PRIORITIES – what to do in what order?

Australia is a vast country and many Australians like to travel off the beaten track to see wild “untouched” places in order to experience that feeling of being at one with nature.

You never know when you may be placed in a lost or stranded situation for which you have not planned or an urban emergency crisis that takes you out of your comfort zone. Many people do not consider ‘what could go wrong’ and are, therefore, unprepared both mentally and physically for such situations. This, in turn, can leave them poorly equipped to deal with a challenge of this type.

Countless examples exist of people who have survived the initial impact of the particular isolating event but then did not know what to do next and prioritised incorrectly doing things in the wrong order, leading to the situation becoming far worse.

The more knowledge you have, and the better prepared you are, the less affected and vulnerable you will feel, enabling you to make good decisions and prioritise correctly.

In this article we will be focussing on the Priorities of Survival, what they are, what to do in what order and what not to do.

The Rule of 3’s

The military and many other civilian organisations use the rule of 3’s to highlight what will harm you first so as to help you to prioritise in what order things need to be taken care of in an isolating event (both wilderness and urban), what is important and what is not. The order should not be altered and priorities may be achieved concurrently. This depends on the situation, the environment, your condition and your resources.

  • 3 minutes without air  If you can’t breath or are bleeding heavily, time to death is in minutes.
  • 3 hours without shelter Uninjured, at extremes of temperature death is in hours.
  • 3 days without water without drinking water death takes days
  • 3 weeks without food without food death can take weeks, depending on the individual

From experience teaching on numerous survival courses, both civilian and military, the majority of people without survival training typically put things in the wrong order, most people putting food too high up the list and shelter and exposure too low.

Our brain plays tricks on us and prefers short term rewards such as the immediate feel good sensation you get from eating a piece of chocolate. Obtaining food and eating it is a much more immediate and tangible reward that our brains are used to rather than the longer term benefits of making a shelter or setting up location aids.

This incorrect prioritisation is greatly exasperated by the many (not all) ridiculous reality based TV survival shows out there that focus on entertainment rather than best practise, and would have you believe that the first order of the day is to find food and go out hunting because that’s  what makes “good” TV!


Poor Prioritisation

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation where people through lack of knowledge, training and arrogance often make poor decisions and prioritise incorrectly.

Let’s imagine that you have gone for a day hike to do some fishing in an unfamiliar remote coastal area. You only intend to be away for a few hours but somehow you get confused and take the wrong track and keep going. You have a little bit of water left in your pack along with your fishing gear but no food, so you ignore the fact that you could possibly be lost, think “she’ll be right” and decide to go fishing first because you think you will be hungry later.

You sit in the afternoon sun for a couple of hours, sweating without catching anything. You soon realise that you have run out of water, are thirsty so start exploring the beach and nearby vegetation to try and find some fresh water.

You search but can’t find any as the sun begins to set.

Your cotton clothing is wet from your sweat and you start to  feel cold and begin to shiver but you didn’t bring any warm clothing because you thought you would only be away for a few hours.

You start to panic as you begin to look around for firewood so that you can light a fire. You continue to stumble around in the dark (you didn’t pack a head torch) trying to find a place to shelter from the approaching storm (you  didn’t pack a tarp), eventually finding something you think might be ok.

You are cold, thirsty, being bitten by mosquitos, struggling and failing to light a fire and then you hear the drone of an aircraft overhead as you sit in the darkness.

This type of hypothetical situation of people being unprepared and doing things in the wrong order plays itself out over and over again around different parts of Australia, often ending in tragedy.


One of the simplest acronyms used around the world by both military and civilian agencies to help describe the priorities of survival and the best order in which to do things in is PLAN (Protection, Location, Acquisition, Navigation). It helps to prioritise what is going to harm you first and to address those things first. Like the rule of 3’s, it is adaptable to your condition, environment and your resources.

Protection (first aid, clothing, shelter, fire)

Location (attracting, holding and directing attention, being found)

Acquisition (acquiring water then food)

Navigation (travel, orientating yourself to your surroundings)

Let’s have a look at these in turn to see what they are.

Protection (first aid, clothing, shelter, fire)

First Aid – is the most immediate action to be conducted in the survival priority of protection. Without quick effective first aid death can occur in minutes as a consequence of serious injury. Being able to look after your own medical needs (if able to) and those of others, at least to a basic level is a valuable life skill and something everyone should invest in and learn.

First aid has its own set of priorities of what to do and in what order. Universal first aid  acronyms vary around the world but one to help you remember what to prioritise in a wilderness environment is: DRSABCDE

Danger – remove yourself or the casualty from further danger

Response – is the casualty alert,  conscious or not

Severe Haemorrhage/Send for help –  apply tourniquet properly, direct pressure, wound packing to stop blood loss. Send for help

Airway – keep open and clear, look listen feel, recovery position if unconscious

Breathing – equal rise and fall of the chest, look listen feel

Circulation – fractures (simple, compound). pat down, control secondary bleeding, capillary refill

Disability – head injuries, level of consciousness

Exposure – protect from the environment, keep warm

There are many first aid providers out there so get yourself the best training you can afford and invest in a good quality first aid kit appropriate for your activity and know how to use it!

Survival Priorities - First Aid - Bushcraft Survival AustraliaStudents practising putting on a pressure immobilisation bandage during a snake bite first aid lesson.

Clothing –  after any first aid issues have been dealt with, your next concern is keeping your temperature regulated. Your first layer of protection from extremes in temperature and other hazards is your clothing. Your clothing needs to protect you from the wind, rain, sun, cold, cuts, scratches, fauna and flora. Clothing must be chosen to match the environment that an individual may face so plan ahead. Generally speaking, in hot climates wear loose fitting cottons and in cold climates wear  loose and layered wools and synthetic garments. Clothing plays an important role in injury prevention and should be worn to offer as complete a cover as possible. Clothing should always include long trousers, long sleeves, head covering, socks and boots, warm inner and protective outer layers. Many people die of exposure each year because they were improperly dressed for the environment they were in.

Being properly dressed for the environment you are in is your first line of defence against the elements.

A useful acronym to remember for colder environments is COLDER

Clean – to maintain thermal efficiency

Overheating – to be avoided. Adjust clothing to minimise sweating

Loose and Layered – maintains airflow or retains heat

Dry – to maintain thermal efficiency

Examine – to ensure wear and tear is minimised

Repair – as required to maintain serviceability and protection

Shelter – beyond the clothing that you are wearing, shelter is the second line of defence against the elements. Adequate shelter will help you maintain your core body temperature of 37ºC. This could be finding shade to shelter from the hot baking sun or finding cover to get out of a chilling wind. Shelters can be purpose built (tent or tarp), improvised from man made resources or natural (made from natural resources). A shelter needs to protect you from the sun, heat, cold, wind, rain, insects and animals. It must also be large enough to protect you but small enough to contain body heat (in cooler climates) or shady and airy enough (hotter climates).
An essential part of any good shelter is a sleeping platform or bed which will provide thermal protection against the ground, protection from biting insects and comfort to allow adequate rest.
Being aware of how we loose and gain heat through conduction, convection, radiation, respiration and evaporation will aid in you being able to make something from nature to help protect you against these heat loss/gain factors should you not have anything man made with you.

See article/blog on shelter

Survival Priorities - Parachute Shelter - Bushcraft Survival AustraliaA survival shelter made using pieces of parachute and natural resources on an RAAF Survival Course

A one man natural shelter made from leaf debris.

Fire – goes hand in hand with shelter, it provides warmth, light, enables us to boil and purify water, cook and preserve food, dry wet clothing, protect us from biting insects, signal for help, make tools and is a major source of morale. Fire is equivalent to electricity in an urban environment. Being able to make fire in any environment under all conditions is one of the most important survival skills you need to learn. There are many ways of making fire  from modern methods to traditional methods (percussion, friction, solar, electrical, chemical, compression). You need to have a knowledge of a few different ways of making fire so that if your primary method fails, you have a backup.  One of the most important things that is overlooked by most  people is the preparation needed to light a fire. No matter what ignition method is used correct preparation requires:

Platform – of dry, dead wood which will act as an insulation layer agains the cold damp ground, allow oxygen to get in underneath and be an early heart to the fire 

Tinder – dry fibrous, fluffy, highly combustible material with lots of surface area that will take a spark

Kindling – dry dead matchstick sized twigs

Fuel – graded larger sticks from pencil sized through to dead standing forearm thickness or larger

Safe fire management involves siting your fire correctly with  2-3 metre clearance down to bare earth. Responsible fire management also involves  cleaning  up properly afterwards, something sadly lacking in Australian camping culture today, caused through ignorance and lack of education. You need to ensure that you only use the minimum fuel required for your needs (most people have fires that are way too large). Lighting a fire automatically gives you the responsibility of timing things so that it burns down to ash without unsightly pieces of unburnt wood being left. The ashes can then be scattered and the area refurbished to the natural state you found it in so that you can’t tell you were there.

See article/blog on fire

Survival Priorities - Fire -Bushcraft Survival AustraliaBeing able to make fire in all conditions is an important survival and life skill

Author - Bushcraft Survival AustraliaThe author instructing US soldiers on a military survival course how to make fire by friction

Location (attracting, holding and directing attention)

The priority of location comes immediately after protection. You need to get to safety either by letting others know you need assistance or by making your own way out (self recovery).
A search would normally begin as soon as authorities are alerted  that there is someone missing. To be rescued, an isolated person must first be located and this is done by first attracting  attention and making yourself as highly visible as possible so that searchers and casual passes by know you are there. This can be done through a variety of passive and active signalling methods from improvised ground to air signals (X, V, HELP), heliographs (signal mirrors), flags, marker panels and signal fires etc to purpose built electronic EPIRBS (emergency position indicating radio beacon) and radios.
You then need to hold that attention so that a would be rescuer doesn’t accidentally mistake your efforts as something fleeting and not worth worrying about. Something repediative, contrasting and has movement is ideal. Eg. A signal mirror .
You then need to direct this attention so that searchers can find you as you may not be located where your signalling devices are set up eg. a giant arrow  (1m X 6m).

By prioritising rescue above water and food and putting your efforts into successfully getting found by recovery agencies, you will be able to be watered and fed once you get back to civilisation. By not putting your efforts into being rescued you could be stranded indefinitely! Having a knowledge of Search And Rescue (SAR) search methods will also  help you to position your location aids for maximum results.

Survival shows tend to overlook the importance of letting others know where you are and being rescued in favour of more entertaining visual impacts such as eating unusual insects and animals.

Survival Priorities - Location - Bushcraft Survival AustraliaStudents on a survival course practising different signalling methods

Survival-Priorities-Signal-Fire-Bushcraft-Survival-AustraliaRAAF Survival Course students watching a tripod signal fire demonstration.

Acquisition (Water then Food)

Water – The next thing on your immediate to do list is to obtain an adequate supply of drinking water.

The human body is made up of approximately 2/3 water. We loose around 1.5 to 2 litres of water per day just through normal body function.

Extremes of climate and exertion can increase this loss up to 15 litres per day. This water loss needs to be replaced or death can occur in days.

Water needs to be found, collected, filtered then purified and safely stored. This takes time and all water procured form ground sources must without exception be treated as contaminated and must be purified before consumption.

Having a knowledge of the 5 water contaminants (turbidity, parasites and protozoa, bacteria, viruses and chemicals) will allow you to be able to select the appropriate filtering and purification procedure.

Water indicators include, terrain, vegetation, bird life, animals and insects but you need to have a knowledge of these in order to find them.

There are various ways of collecting water such as though transpiration, desalination, digging soaks, or collecting from obvious water sources such as streams, creeks, rivers, pools and puddles.

Unless the water is already clear, all water should  be course filtered first to remove turbidity and particulate matter so that all other methods of water purification can work effectively. These include boiling, chemical purification (iodine, chlorine, chlorine dioxide), ultraviolet  and micro filtering  using ceramic filters.

Some form of container is vital to have with you in order to collect, boil  and store water.

It’s also important to remember to drink your water in 200-250ml lots  as small sips every few hours doesn’t  allow your vital organs to absorb  and process the water. Many people have perished in the Australian bush with water in their water bottles because they were sipping it instead of drinking it.

Drink your water, don’t sip it. Conserve your sweat not your water!

See article/blog on Water

Survival Priorities - Water - Bushcraft Survival AustraliaBeing able to source, filter and purify water using a variety of methods is an essential survival skill.

Survival-Priorities-Transpiration-Bag-Bushcraft-Survival-AustraliaStudents about to collect water from a transpiration bag.

Food – Contrary to what most people think, food is the last of importance in a short term (72 hours) survival situation. Most people could easily go for several days without food and be ok, even though they wouldn’t  like it and the thought of food would  dominate their thoughts as we are so used to having 3 meals a day.

However, without long term sustenance the human body will use up most of its fat and energy reserves within 3-4 weeks.

In the first few days your body will use its easy access energy stored in the blood, liver and muscles, resulting in lower energy output and recovery levels followed by the reduced ability to concentrate and reason properly.  Once this is gone your body will start to use up its fat reserves, resulting in impaired body digestive functions and a decline in the bodies immune system and once this is used up, your body will cannibalise its muscles until there is nothing left.

Its also important to note that even though the human body can last for 3 weeks without any food at all, you need to keep eating even very small amounts of food so that your digestive systems metabolic processes are kept working and able to metabolise food. If you don’t, after a long period of starvation or severe malnourishment, the sudden re-introduction of food to the system will cause a metabolic disturbance and sudden shifts in the electrolytes that help your body metabolise food. This is known as refeeding syndrome and can be fatal. Many survivors of the Nazi concentration camps of WW2 died after they were liberated due to refeeding syndrome because they were given too greater portions of food too soon.

Your body needs carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals to function optimally.

If you have to find food, keep it simple and collect the easiest things first such as easily gathered plants and shellfish before trying to go hunting and wasting valuable energy on something you have little knowledge or skill level at catching.

Before gathering any plant food, 100% identification of the plant is needed first. Do the work and actually learn some useful, common and widespread plants in you’re area and don’t rely on long winded, ineffective sampling methods such as the Edibility Test or SIT test which can take up to 16 hours to complete and are not practical when on the move. These are last resort measures and if your plant knowledge is so poor that you have to rely on tests like these then you are probably better off having nothing at all!

Do the work and learn some common and widespread, edible and useful plants in your area or the area you are travelling to, it’s not hard!

Survival Priorities - Food - Bushcraft Survival AustraliaFood is the last thing of importance to prioritise in a short term (72 hours) survival situation.

Navigation (finding your bearings)

The general rule of thumb is for the isolated person to always stay at the scene of the isolating event or with the broken down vehicle or crash site. This is because a vehicle is much more visible from the air and the vehicle provides all sorts of resources that can be used to aid your survival.

The exception to this rule is when staying where you are increases the risk of harm to you due to dangerous environmental factors such as lack of shade, lack of water, flooding, bushfire or the area being so thickly wooded that you are not visible by air Eg. a rainforest. In these circumstances you would need to move but before you did you would have to have some idea of where you were going and how to get there without getting further lost.

It’s also likely that you will need to navigate to other areas to be able to address and find all your other previously mentioned survival priorities, so you need some way of being able to orient yourself, travel and get back to your starting point.

Basic navigation skills using map and compass and natural navigation are essential for any sort of wilderness outing and along with first aid, need to be practised and learnt way ahead of time, not waiting for an actual event to unfold before you look at them.

See article/blog on Navigation

Survival Priorities - Navigation - Bushcraft Survival AustraliaFinding direction using the sun. Being able to navigate and Orientate yourself is a vital life skill.


By having a checklist of priorities such as PLAN, helps us to think rationally and formulate a clear path of action, spending energy on the most important things first, preventing us wasting valuable time and resources on less important tasks.

Apart from prioritising important tasks first in an isolating event or a  survival situation, this same type of prioritisation mentality can be advantageous in regular life and business to help you focus on what needs to be done rather than wasting time and money on things that don’t.