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Minnesota teen has slept in his backyard for nearly 3 years just for fun

‘I guess a lot of people might find it a little unusual, but to us, it’s now the normal routine,’ said Andrew Ortman, the teen’s father

Isaac Ortman sleeps outside in a “bivy sack'' — a personal-size waterproof shelter — in January 2022. (Melissa Ortman)
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For more than 1,000 nights, Isaac Ortman, 14, has slept beneath the stars in his backyard in Duluth, Minn., including on a night when the temperature dipped to minus-38 degrees.

What started as a whimsical self-challenge at his family’s cabin about 30 miles from home when he was 11 is now a nightly routine that Isaac expects he’ll continue through high school — and maybe longer.

“I don’t see it ending anytime soon. I might even keep going through college,” said Isaac, who is a Boy Scout. “It’s a lot of fun, and I’m not ready to stop.”

On Jan. 12, to celebrate his 1,000th night of sleeping outside, Isaac cozied up inside a snow shelter called a quinzhee that he and some of his scouting friends from Troop 15 built at Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Duluth.

Although most of Isaac’s nights have been in his backyard, for the milestone, Isaac’s parents let him sleep alone in the quinzhee next to the building where he attends Boy Scout meetings with his dad, Andrew Ortman, the troop’s scoutmaster.

“He never gets tired of it. Every night is a new adventure,” said Andrew Ortman, 48, noting that his son even insisted on sleeping outside after he broke his left wrist in an accident at home this month.

“We came home from the emergency room, and I went back outside like I always do,” Isaac said. “It’s like the time we saw a bear walk up to our patio door. Thirty minutes later, I was brushing my teeth and getting ready to go to sleep outside.”

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Isaac’s mom, Melissa Ortman, was a little worried that night, she said, but after the bear left, she and Andrew gave the okay for the sleep-out to continue.

“He knows to come inside for a bit and check in with us if something’s not going well,” said Melissa Ortman, 43. “After 1,000 nights, he has our trust.”

Isaac gave up his bedroom for a hammock and a sleeping bag on April 17, 2020, when he was in sixth grade, he said, noting that it was the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when more people were heading outdoors.

“I was sleeping outside at our cabin, and I thought, ‘Wow, I should beat my own record for sleeping outside for a week,’” he recalled. “So I slept outside the whole time on vacation and just decided to keep it going when I got home.”

His dad recalled that Isaac did a lot of research to find the best equipment to keep him warm and safe while sleeping outdoors in four seasons.

“He found a waterproof hammock to string up in the yard, and he has a couple of sleeping bags, under-quilts and over-quilts that he can add depending on how cold it is,” Andrew Ortman said. “He has a great system.”

Isaac said he usually sleeps in his clothes, and he adds an insulated hood to keep him warm during the winter.

“It goes over my entire face and cinches up, so just my nostrils are out,” he said. “Even in the cold, I sleep just fine. My dad says it’s hard to wake me sometimes.”

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After two years and nine months of his routine, he said he prefers snow, rain and wind to the heat and humidity of the summer.

“Unless it’s below zero, I like to stick one of my legs out at night, so I don’t get too hot,” he said. “If you’re cold, you can always put on layers. But in the summer, there’s only so much you can take off.”

“You get all sweaty, plus there are mosquitoes,” he added. “And the Fourth of July is the worst. It’s noisy all night.”

To break up the routine (and escape the occasional downpour), Isaac will sometimes pitch a tent in the backyard, he said, noting that when he stays at friends’ houses, he’ll sleep outside under the stars or put up a tent, even if they decide to go inside.

Melissa Ortman remembers a recent night when her son was sick with a 102-degree fever.

“He still stuck with it and went outside. He wanted to see it through,” she said. “Since he started doing this, he’s grown in a lot of ways, and not just his size.”

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Family vacations require advance planning, so Isaac can sleep in a campground with his dad while his mom and older sister, Lilly, stay in a motel. Isaac has also slept in his family’s fishing boat when it’s parked in motel parking lots.

“I guess a lot of people might find it a little unusual, but to us, it’s now the normal routine,” Andrew Ortman said. “I’m proud of Isaac for sticking with it. A bad snowstorm, a migraine headache, a leaky tent: Nothing gets him down. He’s really learned to persevere.”

Isaac said he’s not out to break any records for sleeping outside, although there are a few other records already on the books.

In 1980, a teenager named David Ross from Manchester, England, ended a streak of sleeping outside for four years and 46 days. Closer to home, Rudy Hummel, another Boy Scout from Minnesota, made headlines in 2014 after he slept outside for a full year.

And currently, English teenager Max Woosey started his own outdoor sleeping marathon in March 2020 to raise money for a hospital treating an elderly friend. He’s still sleeping in a tent.

“I’m not doing this for any records or a cause. I’m just having a good time,” Isaac said. “But with the guy who’s sleeping out in England, I guess you could say it’s an unofficial competition.”

With his high school graduation now 3½ years away, if anyone is going to camp out and beat the record from 1980, he said, “it might as well be me.”