DULUTH, Minn. — Isaac Ortman woke up Friday, crawled out of three sleeping bags and headed inside to get ready for school.
And that marked 1,000 straight nights of sleeping outdoors for the 14-year-old from Duluth
To celebrate the milestone, he and his fellow Boy Scouts from Troop 15 built a snow shelter — a quinzhee — outside Lakeside Presbyterian Church, where the troop holds meetings, and he slept there instead of in his yard. It was 14 degrees when he woke up.
Most of the 1,000 nights have been in a hammock hanging between trees in the backyard of his parents’ home. Some were outside their family cabin near Pequaywan Lake, others at his grandmother’s home, on Boy Scout camping trips or family vacations.
It was the peak of the early COVID-19 pandemic shutdown when Isaac — then 11 — started the endeavor on April 17, 2020. Camping alone outdoors was pretty good social distancing.
“We were up at our cabin, and I had slept out for five nights and thought, hey, I can beat my record of seven nights in a row sleeping outside, so I kept going when we got home,” he said. “Then it just sort of kept going from there.”
On his 12th birthday, May 13, 2020, he made a decision to go for it — to see how many days he could go sleeping outdoors. Now 14 and a freshman at Duluth East High School, he plans to keep the streak going, possibly through graduation.
When people ask the obvious question, he has a quick response.
“I say, ‘Why not? It’s fun.’ ”
Along the way to 1,000 nights, he has slept on the deck of a fishing boat during a salmon fishing trip to Lake Michigan, while the rest of the party was indoors. He and dad found a campsite in the Wisconsin Dells while the rest of the family was in a water park hotel.
Once on a family vacation, Isaac had to hide his hammock. “The resort didn’t allow any camping, but the guy at the desk quietly told him where he could go into the woods onto some public land where it was OK,” said his mom, Melissa Ortman.
There have been nights as cold as 38 degrees below zero, as well as sweaty summer nights and mosquitos.
In the summer, he’ll sometimes pitch a tent in the yard “just to change things up,” he said. “I go back and forth in the summer.”
He also spent a few nights last month in a tent when he was sick, with a 102-degree fever, because the constant swinging of the hammock in the winter winds was making him queasy.
The Nube-brand hammock is waterproof and has shed even 2-foot snowfalls so far. Underneath are two padded “quilts” for insulation, part of the integral system that suspends him 3 feet above the ground. When he crawls into three Sierra Madre Research sleeping bags, he’s hardly visible.
Isaac says he usually goes to bed in whatever he was wearing that day.
“If it’s not below zero, I’ll stick a leg out so it’s in just one bag. Otherwise I get too hot,” he said. “I actually like sleeping out in the winter better. There are no bugs. … I get too hot in the summer.”
His usual routine is to hit the hammock about 10 p.m., spend a half-hour on his phone (hey, he’s still a regular teenager) and then lights-out until morning.
“Fourth of July is the worst night. They (fireworks) just keep going all night long,” Isaac said.
One time he got up to use the bathroom and there was a bear in the yard. He stayed inside for a half-hour or so then went back out to his hammock. He wakes up to bunnies and birds and deer in the yard on some mornings.
Ortman’s family has been supportive of the streak.
“It’s been interesting planning family vacations. I have to book a hotel room for my wife and daughter and then find a campsite for Isaac and me,” Andrew Ortman said. “And some people have been concerned. We’ve got calls from teachers who wonder if things are all right at home. … When he tells them he’s been sleeping outside for three years, they assume something’s wrong.”
Northern Minnesotans might remember another outdoor sleeper, 17-year-old Rudy Hummel, who gained national notoriety back in summer 2014 when he made it a full year camping outdoors, much of that during the extreme cold polar vortex winter. Hummel — from Hermantown, adjacent to Duluth — was also a Boy Scout.
Even at 1,000 nights, Isaac said he isn’t necessarily shooting for any sort of record book entry for sleeping outside. Several British newspapers reported that David Ross, a boy from Manchester, England, set what was believed to be the world record Feb. 21, 1980, with his 1,506th night outdoors in a tent. That’s four years and 46 days. To beat that, Isaac would have to keep sleeping outdoors until about June 2024.
Isaac is aware of another English boy who apparently is on his own pandemic-inspired, continuing campout streak. Max Woosey, from Braunton, England, started his outdoor sleeping adventure March 29, 2020 — about 20 days before Isaac.
Max, then 10 years old, started camping in his backyard in a one-person tent to raise money for the hospital that was caring for his 74-year-old friend Rick Abbott. He has raised more than $730,000 and has become a national celebrity. According to Max’s Facebook page, under the name “The Boy In The Tent,” he notched his 1,000th night camping outdoors Christmas Day.
So far, Isaac has eschewed any social media celebrity and hasn’t added any fundraising component. But he’s considering it, using what’s likely to be a little celebrity attention to help a good cause.
While it was his Boy Scout background that helped inspire him to start the camping streak, it might be a Boy Scout event that stops it. He will be headed to the national Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia this summer. And while the troop will be camping out when they get there, the plan was to stay in motels in big cities along the way.
“It would be ironic if it was the Boy Scout Jamboree that ended his streak,” said Andrew Ortman, who is the troop’s leader. “We’ll see what we can do, what happens.”
Isaac is at the Star level in Boy Scouts. He hopes to soon earn the Life level and stick with it through Eagle Scout status.
“He’s grown a lot since he started this,” said Melissa Ortman. “Both in maturity and size.”
For his part, Isaac says he’ll keep going as long as sleeping outside remains fun.
“If I run into something and just can’t do it, then I’ll just start the streak over again,” he said. “It’s something fun to do. That’s all, really.”