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Duluth Boy Scout sleeps outdoors for 1,000 nights

Isaac Ortman, 14, plans to keep his streak going, winter and summer — maybe for years longer.

boy sleeps outside
Isaac Ortman, of Duluth, sleeps in his hammock Monday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Boy Scout Isaac Ortman woke up Friday morning, crawled out of three sleeping bags and a snow shelter called a quinzhee and then headed inside to get ready for school.

And that marks 1,000 straight nights of sleeping outdoors. Camping outside. Not in a bed.

To celebrate No. 1,000, Ortman and his friends in Troop 15 piled snow and built the quinzhee outside Lakeside Presbyterian Church, where his troop holds meetings and where he spent the night. On Thursday night and Friday morning he was visited by several well-wishers to mark the occasion. It was 14 degrees outside when he woke up.

Boy Scout in snow shelter
Isaac Ortman of Duluth enjoys a mug of hot chocolate on Friday morning after spending his 1000th night sleeping outside. For the big occasion he slept in a snow shelter at Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Most of the 1,000 nights have been spent alone, in a hammock hanging between trees in the backyard of his parents' Lakeside neighborhood home in Duluth. Some have been spent outside their family cabin near Pequaywan Lake. Others at his grandmother’s home. Some on Boy Scout camping trips. Some on family vacations.

Ortman started this endeavor when he was 11. That was back on April 17, 2020, when he was in sixth grade. He’s now 14 and a freshman at Duluth East High School.

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boy sleeps outside
Isaac Ortman, of Duluth, places his sleep system into his hammock Monday.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

It was the peak of the early COVID-19 pandemic shutdown when the streak began, and 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,” Ortman said. “Then it just sort of kept going from there.”

On his 12th birthday, May 13, 2020, Ortman made a decision to go for it — to see how many days he could go sleeping outdoors. Being a stubborn Taurus, he hasn’t let anything stop him. Not a bear in the yard or rainy summer nights or below-zero winter night temperatures.

boy sleeps outside
A shelter created by Isaac Ortman at his family cabin in April 2020 near Duluth.
Contributed photo

“At that point, after about 30 days, I told him he needed to make a single decision” to keep going or stop, said Andrew Ortman, Isaac’s father and scoutmaster. “It’s easier for him, and I told him he’d get more support from people if he made one decision rather than 365 decisions, every morning when he got up, whether he would keep going.”

And that decision still holds. Ortman will likely hit 1,001 nights Saturday morning and plans to keep the streak going, possibly through high school, which is another three and a half years.

boy sleeps outside
Isaac Ortman, of Duluth, slept on the dock at his family cabin in April 2020.
Contributed photo

Just for fun, for now

When people ask the obvious question, Ortman 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. There have been nights as cold as 38 degrees below zero camping outside their cabin as well as mosquitoes and sweaty summer nights, too.

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boy sleeps outside
A hammock Isaac Ortman used to sleep outside earlier during his streak of 1,000 consecutive nights camping out.
Contributed photo

Once on a family vacation to a resort near Wirt, Minnesota, Ortman had to sort of 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 Isaac’s mom, Melissa Ortman.

So far, Ortman has avoided adding any fundraising cause for his outside sleeping marathon. But he’s considering it, using what’s likely to be a little celebrity attention to help a good cause.

Boy Scout in snow shelter
Isaac Ortman of Duluth sits in his quinzhee at Lakeside Presbyterian Church prior to spending his 1,000th night sleeping outside on Thursday in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Until then, he’ll just keep making sure his cellphone is charged each night when he brushes his teeth indoors and heads out to his hammock in the backyard. The hammock, stuffed with two or three sleeping bags, depending on how cold it is, has been his bed for most of the 1,000 nights. 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.”

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.

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Ortman 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,” Ortman noted. “I actually like sleeping out in the winter better. There are no bugs. … I get too hot in the summer.”

Ortman spent a few nights last month in a tent in the backyard when he was sick, with a 102-degree fever, because the constant swinging motion of the hammock in the winter winds was giving him motion sickness.

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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,” Ortman said.

boy sleeps outside
Isaac Ortman in a hammock he used for sleeping outdoors in April 2020 in Duluth.
Contributed photo

One time he got up to use the restroom, indoors, and there was a bear in the yard. Ortman 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.

“You know when the neighbors let their dogs out late because you hear “Here, Toby! Here, Toby! Here, Toby!” Ortman said with a grin.

Either his cellphone wakes him up or his mother might holler from the door or maybe his sister, Lilly, comes out to make sure he gets inside and is ready for school on time. 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 noted. “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."

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Some sort of record?

Northlanders might remember another outdoor sleeper, Rudy Hummel, who gained national notoriety back in summer 2014 when he made it a full year, 365 nights, camping outdoors, much of that during the extreme cold polar vortex winter.
After a News Tribune story appeared halfway through his streak, word of Hummel's mission, and his eventual 365 nights sleeping outdoors, went viral. (Hummel, of Hermantown, 17, at the time, was also a Boy Scout.)

Rudy Hummel
In 2013-14, Rudy Hummel, of Hermantown, made national news when he slept outdoors for 365 nights, most in his parents' backyard. Here, he prepares to spend a winter night in a qunizhee or snow shelter.
Clint Austin / 2013 file / Duluth News Tribune

Even at 1,000 nights, Ortman said he isn’t necessarily shooting for any sort of record book entry for sleeping outside. Several British newspapers reported that Manchester, England, scout David Ross set what was believed to be the world record Feb. 21, 1980, by sleeping 1,506 days in a row outdoors in a tent. That’s four years and 46 days. To beat that, Ortman would have to keep sleeping outdoors until around June 1, 2024.

A web search of "boy who sleeps outside" elicits 3.98 million Google results. The first page is all Rudy Hummel.

Ortman is aware of another English lad who apparently is on his own pandemic-inspired, continuing campout streak. Max Woosey, from Braunton, England, started his outdoor sleeping adventure March 29, 2020, at the height of the first lockdown — about 20 days before Ortman began his streak.

The then-10-year-old Britt started camping in his back yard in a one-person tent to raise money for the North Devon Hospital that was caring for his 74-year-old friend, Rick Abbott. Woosey has raised more than $730,000 and has become a national celebrity.

According to Woosey’s Facebook page, under the name "The Boy In The Tent," he is still going, reaching his 1,000th night camping outdoors Christmas Day.

So far, Ortman has eschewed any social media celebrity and isn’t posting about his streak.

boy sleeps outside
Isaac Ortman in a shelter he created for sleeping outside at his family cabin Jan. 29, 2022, near Duluth.
Contributed photo

While it was his Boy Scout background that helped inspire Ortman to start the camping streak, it might be a Boy Scout event that stops it. Ortman will be headed to the national Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia this summer. And while they 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,” Andrew Ortman noted. “We’ll see what we can do, what happens.”

Ortman is at the Star level in Boy Scouts. He hopes to soon earn the Life level and plans to stick with scouting, eventually earning his Eagle Scout status.

“He’s grown a lot since he started this,” said Melissa Ortman. “Both in maturity and size.”

For his part, Ortman 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,” Ortman said. “It’s something fun to do. That’s all, really.”

Boy Scout in snow shelter
Isaac Ortman of Duluth emerges from his quinzhee at Lakeside Presbyterian Church after sleeping 1000 nights outside on Friday in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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