Our modern technological society pretty much insulates us from the basics of survival. We don’t have to think about how we are going to start a fire, where we are going to find food or whether the water flowing in the stream is safe to drink. Everything we need either comes to us automatically or is readily available for us to buy in any of a number of stores.
That doesn’t mean those survival needs disappear, simply that we don’t have to think about them. We are freed up from the basic needs to be able to pursue what Maslow called our “higher order needs.” That’s great, as long as it lasts, but any serious disaster will knock us back to the point of struggling to meet our physiological needs.
In the most basic sense, survival is about meeting those physiological needs. According to Maslow, those have to be met, before we can climb up the ladder to meet our social, esteem and other higher order needs. We even put those needs before safety, as has be seen throughout history in people who risk their safety, hunting dangerous animals for food, when there are no others available. The need for food, as a basic physiological need is a greater survival need that safety is.
What are the Basic Survival Needs?
There’s a pretty good chance that you’ve heard that the basic needs for survival are “food, clothing and shelter.” Unfortunately, that little piece of poetry is not exactly accurate. While all of those are important, they aren’t the only basic needs; nor are they presented in any way that really makes sense. There is no sense of priority in that list.
We can determine the most important needs for survival, based upon how quickly we will die if we don’t have them. Based upon that criteria, our greatest needs for survival are:
- Purified water
Failure to provide the body with those three things will ensure an untimely death. The only real question is how quickly the body will die. Partial provision of them can extend the body’s life, but at a cost of reducing the body’s ability to function correctly.
#1 Survival Priority – Thermoregulation
Thermoregulation refers to keeping the body’s core temperature in an acceptable range for survival. That range is very small, covering a span of only three degrees. If the core body temperature passes beyond that range, the body and mind start losing their ability to function. It only takes about six degrees of temperature, either high or low to kill the body.
Hypothermia is when the body’s core temperature drops below the safe temperature range.
Hyperthermia is when the body’s core temperature rises above the safe temperature range.
Thermoregulation is the most important survival priority because it is possible to die in as little as three minutes if you are unable to maintain it. A traveler falling off the deck of a passenger ship into the North Atlantic in the wintertime would experience hypothermia very quickly, dying in about three minutes.
Two of the items in that lovely bit of poetry deal with thermoregulation; clothing and shelter. The true purpose of these two items is to provide the body with protection from the elements and insulate it so that it can keep heat in. So, they are important parts of survival, but not as most people state it.
#2 Survival Priority – Clean Water
The human body is largely made up of water. Each cell in our bodies contains water, sometimes consisting of as much as 99 percent water. This varies somewhat, depending upon the type of cell, with bone cells only containing 31 percent water.
Without water, the body stops functioning. Water does a large number of things necessary for our survival, ranging from flushing out chemical waste to lubricating joints. As the percentage of water in our bodies begins to drop, various functions start shutting down, in an effort to keep us alive. When enough of those functions shut down, death occurs. In a temperate climate, a human can survive for about three days without water.
The other problem with water is that it has to be clean. Even water gathered from a stream high up in the mountains can be filled with unseen microscopic pathogens which can kill you. In a survival situation, all water must be treated as suspect and purified before use.
#3 Survival Priority – Food
It’s kind of funny that food is usually mentioned as the first survival priority. In actuality, it comes in as number three. That’s because anyone can live for a while on the energy reserves that they have in their body.
Typically, survivalists say that you can live off the energy stored in your body for 20 days. That’s actually a rather conservative estimate, as most of us carry more fat on our body than we should. Some medical experts have stated that the average American can live for 100 days off of the energy stored in our body’s fat. However, we probably wouldn’t be able to function very well towards the end of that time.
Food isn’t as easy to find in the wild as most people think it is. While it is still possible to live off the land, it’s a full-time job. If we end up in a situation where society breaks down and thousands of people head for the hills, there probably won’t be enough naturally occurring food available to survive.
What Other Survival Priorities Are There?
Besides these three top priorities, there are other things that are important to survival. Air is actually a higher survival priority than thermoregulation is, but we normally operate under the assumption that air will be available. If something were to happen where air was no longer available, no amount of prepping or survival training will help one survive.
However, there are situations where the air that is available may not be all that safe to breathe. Planning for that should be part of anyone’s survival preparedness. Gas masks or even simple medical masks may be needed to prevent breathing in airborne pathogens or poisonous gases.
The other big survival priority is fire. While it is technically possible to survive without fire, there are many things we use fire for, which help us to survive. Fire actually helps us meet all three of the basic survival needs. It can keep us warm, be used to purify our water and also be used to cook our food.
Fire is so important, that most survival instructors teach that one should have two primary and two secondary means of starting a fire. That way, you are always sure of being able to start a fire to help you survive.