Isaac Ortman, 14, recently crept into his house in the middle of the night. He had spotted a black bear in his backyard — where he has been sleeping every night since April 2020 — and he thought he should wait inside until the bear left.
“He came in ... and said, ‘Um, there’s a bear out there,’” Isaac’s dad, Andrew Ortman, 48, of Duluth, Minnesota, tells TODAY.com. “He was back out there within 30 minutes.”
It’s just one of the challenges Isaac has faced while sleeping outside for more than 1,000 nights in a row. Isaac started spending the night outdoors when he and his family were staying at their cabin shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“My dad’s like, ‘You should sleep outside this weekend.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure, why not? Sounds like fun,’” Isaac recalls. “I slept outside and then in the weekend I was like, ‘I could beat my personal record by sleeping outside for 10 whole days straight.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do that.’”
He challenged his friends to do the same. While they encouraged him, no one took him up on his offer. At first, Isaac decided that he would try sleeping outdoors for a year.
“When we first started out, every night he was coming in and trying to figure out, ‘Am I going to sleep outside again tonight?’” his dad remembers. “I told him that you can make either one decision and you can set a goal, or you can make one decision every night. So, he thought about that for a while and he came back and said, ‘Yeah I want to do this for a year.’”
At this point, Isaac has no specific end date in mind. He’s even entertaining the idea of sleeping outside throughout college.
“He’s just having fun with it,” his dad says.
“I’m not out there to beat any world record,” he says. “I’m just here having fun in my backyard.”
Isaac, who is a Boy Scout, often sleeps in a hammock. He researched gear so that his hammock, sleeping bag and rain fly would keep him comfortable while out in the elements. He wound up preferring a company called Sierra Madre Research that makes camping gear and donates some of its proceeds to supply clean water to communities that need it.
There are times when Isaac can’t sleep in his hammock, though. Once he had a 102-degree fever and the swinging of the hammock made him nauseated.
“Normally, his hammock is in the back half of our yard,” Isaac’s mom, Melissa Ortman, 43, tells TODAY.com “Because he was sick, we shoveled a spot in the snow for him so he could set up a tent and he could sleep just five feet from our back door. So, he could come in, or we were close if he had a problem.”
At the moment, Isaac is wearing a cast after breaking his wrist in a skateboarding accident. Last spring, he had a cast after he broke his hand mountain biking. Even his broken bones haven’t stopped him. Neither has cold weather; Isaac has slept outside when it was 38 degrees below zero. To cope with freezing temperatures, he says he uses the "three W's" of layering: wicking, warmth and weather.
“The wicking layer is the layer that pushes the moisture and stuff and keeps it away from the body. And then the warm layer is … like your puffy coat or your sleeping bag. That’s the layer that will hold all the heat in,” Isaac explains. “Then your weather layer, like your windbreaker or your tent, that will keep all the weather and stuff away from warm layer.”
Sometimes logistics make it tough for him to keep up his streak. When the family goes on vacation or visits Isaac’s grandparents, for example, he needs to plan ahead so he can still snooze in the open air.
“I often have to adapt to my milieu,” Isaac says.
When the family traveled to a water park last summer, Melissa and her daughter stayed in a hotel, while Andrew, Isaac and Isaac’s friend slept at a campground.
“We, as a family, do spend a lot of time camping or out in the woods anyway,” Melissa explains. “It’s usually just once or twice a year we have to make special arrangements.”
Isaac is thinking ahead to this summer when he'll be traveling for the Boy Scout Jamboree and eventually will make his way to Washington, D.C. He says he would love to camp on the White House lawn and hopes President Joe Biden might extend an invitation.
“If he had one wish right now, it would be for the president to ask him to camp out on the White House lawn,” Isaac’s dad says. “Wouldn’t that be neat? It would be a feel-good story for the nation.”