Duluth Scout sleeps outside for more than 1,000 nights — and counting


For more than 1,000 nights, a Duluth Boy Scout named Isaac Ortman has slept outside.

He built and slept in a snow shelter called a quinzee. He pitched a tent. And for the past two-plus years, he’s spent most nights in a hammock strung between two trees in his backyard.

Even as the mercury plunged to double digits below zero. Even when a bear visited. Even when the whipping wind gave him motion sickness as he swung wildly in his hammock. And yes, even with his arm in a cast.

So, why is he doing it?

“It’s just fun,” he said.

Isaac isn’t angling to break any records, raise money for a good cause or go viral on social media. It’s just that he likes a challenge. Now a 14-year-old ninth-grader, Isaac was just 11 when he began his outdoor endeavor on April 17, 2020.

During those early pandemic months, most group scouting activities were canceled. His troop, like many across the country, held a “virtual” camping trip, with everyone sleeping outside in different places on the same night. Isaac camped at his family’s cabin near Pequaywan Lake about 45 minutes north of Duluth.

And then he just kept going.

After that first night, “he challenged his Scout troop to sleep outside longer than him,” said his dad, Andrew Ortman, who is also scoutmaster for Isaac’s Scouts troop. “Nobody took him up on it, and they’re all thankful they didn’t.”

But Isaac accepted his own challenge. And what he thought might be a five-day endeavor at most stretched to eight days, then 10. Soon, it was a month. At that point, Isaac wondered if he could sleep outside for a whole year.

He and his dad talked it through, and Andrew Ortman told his son that instead of making up his mind every evening — weighing whether to keep his streak going or pack it in — he should just decide once and for all.

“I said, ‘If you make one decision, people will rally around you and support you,’ ” his father said.

Isaac went for it.

“And here we are, almost three years later,” Andrew Ortman said.

Surprisingly, the cold hasn’t been the biggest challenge for Isaac. The toughest thing has been figuring out travel logistics during family trips so he could sleep outside even as his family stayed indoors at places like a Wisconsin Dells waterpark hotel (he and his dad found a campsite nearby) or on a fishing trip (he slept on deck).

It did take him a while to figure out the right winter gear, including four special quilts designed for hammock camping — two underneath him, two on top — to keep heat from escaping, plus a sleeping bag that he hangs over the sides. “That’s so I don’t get a flow of ice-cold negative 40 [degree] air coming in,” he said.

Scouting skills have come in handy, both Ortmans said.

“Just being able to be prepared is the biggest one,” said Andrew Ortman. “If he’s going to sleep outside, he needs to be ready.” That includes making sure his gear is dry and thinking through a backup plan, just in case.

Isaac, who loves playing video games and hanging out with friends, has had lots of backyard sleepovers and campouts with buddies as his sleeping-out streak stretched from weeks and months into years. He even got his older sister to camp with him for a week last summer. (It wasn’t a hard sell, he said, because it was hotter inside the family’s unair-conditioned house than it was outside.)

Isaac’s mom, Melissa Ortman, said she and her husband had no idea their son would stick to his open-ended challenge. But they’ve been impressed by his resolve. In the time he’s been sleeping outside, he’s grown 11 inches — going from the shortest member of his family of four to the tallest. He’s grown in other ways, too, his mom said.

“It’s been fun to watch him mature through this process,” she said. “Going from a sixth-grader to a ninth-grader, there’s a lot of maturity that happens. You can really see it in the way he approaches his sleeping outside — as well as many other aspects of life.”

Mom and dad have also learned a lot about their son.

“He has been able to set a goal and reach that goal with support from family and friends. We’re just super proud,” she said. “He’s achieving something; he’s not out causing trouble. He’s doing something constructive to make him a better person.”

Even though making or breaking records isn’t his thing, Isaac and his dad have been following a kid from England named Max Woosey who started camping outdoors 20 days before Isaac. According to Woosey’s Facebook page, he’s still going strong. Both boys still have a way to go to beat the world record for camping outdoors set in 1980 by a British Scout who spent four years, 46 days in a tent, according to the BBC archive.

And while scouting started Isaac’s camping streak, it may also break it.

Isaac, who is now at the Star rank in scouting, and his dad plan to drive to the Boy Scouts National Jamboree at Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia in July. Until then, he plans to keep sleeping outside. They’ll camp once they get there, of course, but he may end up staying in hotels or motels in cities along the way.

Whenever it comes, sleeping indoors that first night will likely feel “really sad,” Isaac said. But he isn’t too worried.

“Once we’re done with Jamboree,” he said, “I’ll just have to start the streak over again.”


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