Duluth 14-year-old has slept outside for 1,021 straight nights, and still counting

Published 2:57 pm Saturday, February 4, 2023

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By Dan Kraker, Minnesota Public Radio News

When Isaac Ortman woke up in his backyard hammock in Duluth Friday morning — in frigid, negative 20-degree conditions — it marked the 1,021st consecutive night that the 14-year-old Duluth Boy Scout had slept outside.

He isn’t doing it for notoriety, to raise money or to set records.

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“I don’t have really any goals in particular,” he says. “I’m just having fun with it.”

The first night

It all started back in April 2020. He was 11 then. The COVID-19 pandemic had just raised its head. His family was at their cabin. And his dad asked him,

“Do you want to sleep outside while we’re here?”

“And I’m like, yeah,” Isaac recalls. “So I sleep outside all weekend, for five straight nights.”

And then he thought, I could keep going and beat my own record. “And that would be awesome.”

So they got home, and he slept outside in his backyard.

“And it was lots of fun. And I’m like, oh, I’ll just keep going. But then I also challenged my scout group to see if anyone could sleep outside longer than me.”

For the record, nobody could. That didn’t stop him though. He kept going. For no other reason than, well, he liked it.

“I love the space that I get from my parents. And it’s just really, it’s just a fun experience. It’s like going camping every night.”

He’s got a system

That means, over nearly three years, he’s slept in just about every kind of weather. He says the hot and humid nights are the worst, because there’s

nothing he can do about it. There are only so many layers to take off, after all.

He covers the hammock with a rain fly and bug net.

The cold? He’s got a system for that.

“I sleep in a hammock, so I have under quilts, so I don’t compress all the insulation underneath me. I’ll put on my long underwear and then sometimes I’ll heat up a water bottle full of really warm water … put that in between my legs, that way, the blood, it goes by the warm water, warms up, goes to my feet, keeps everything nice and warm.”

Then he snuggles inside a 20-degree down sleeping bag and covers that with two zero-degree down quilts. He says this week hasn’t even fazed him. His coldest night so far was 38 below.

He even slept one night shortly after a bear peeked through their back patio window. He just made sure he didn’t have any candy wrappers around.

Thick and thin

That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges. In December, during a big snow storm, Melissa, his mom, says he spiked a 102-degree fever.

“And so normally his hammock is way in our backyard, and we shoveled a spot, put a tent five feet from our back door so he could come in and out as needed.”

She says for her, the best part of this experience has been watching her son mature.

“It’s just been really cool to see how he’s grown through the years,” she said. “He’s approached a problem, figured out how to solve things on his own, or with our support, and made it through.”

Isaac says he plans to keep going at least through high school, so for another nearly four years. And maybe beyond. His story has been picked up by the Washington Post, he’s been interviewed by NBC News and the BBC.

His dad Andrew says Isaac hasn’t let it get to his head. He’s still just a 14-year-old kid with homework to do.

“I don’t see him stopping anytime unless it’s not fun for him,” said Andrew. “As soon as it’s not fun, he knows, we’ve talked about it, that he can call it quits whenever he wants. Nobody’s gonna judge him. Nobody’s gonna feel bad, he’s already done awesome.”

One potential stumbling block for Isaac’s streak lies ahead this summer, when he plans to go to a national scouting jamboree in West Virginia. As part of the trip, he’ll spend some time in Washington D.C.

So he needs to figure out a place to camp there. Andrew’s been thinking about it.

“Well, if I had one dream right now for this summer, it would be for the president to invite him to sleep on the White House lawn,” his dad said.

Or, maybe someone else has space for a hammock. Andrew hopes so.

“Because he doesn’t want his streak to get broken, ironically, by a Boy Scout event. That would be very cruel.”