Walden on Wheels: Book Review

As discussed in my 2017 Goals post, I am to read 1 book a month. Well, as of Jan. 4th, 2017: I have already accomplished my goal for the first month. Walden on Wheels was a book that I could simply not put down. Ravishing stories about the Alaskan Arctic, Duke University’s parking lots, living out of a van for 2 years, and living costs of only ~$4,300 a year peaked my interest. I like to consider myself a bit of an outdoorsman. I did, unbeknownst to most of my followers, participate in the Boy Scouts of America from the grades of 1st through 12th. I have spent many a days camping, canoeing, backpacking, hiking and the like. I felt as if I could relate to Ken Ilgunas on a level of understanding the impacts nature has on a person once completely submersed.


Ken speaks firstly of his undergraduate college tuition debt after graduation. Something most of my followers might be able to relate to (unfortunately). Ken had racked up about $30,000 in debt, and paid it off in less than 3 years, by living as frugally as you can imagine. Spending seasonal months in the Alaskan Arctic, with town population of less than 20 people, he earned a great sum of money without having to pay for food, room, or travel. He spent his summer months in Mississippi, working with degenerates performing manual labor. Aspirations of a debt free graduate degree in the Liberal Arts (something I certainly cannot relate to) led Ken to his ultimate experiment. The van.

The Van: 

The most intriguing, and outlandish part of this book are his 2 years spent living in the back of a panel-van, in complete secrecy (well for at least the majority of the time there). He bought a parking permit and ended up tucking his van away in a corner of a student parking lot, cooking horrid meals on a backpacking stove and sleeping on food crumbs. He speaks of a run-in with a rat(s), which sequentially got him sick. He lined the walls with insulation for warmth, hung curtains for privacy, and added shelves and hooks for connivence. Taking showers at the campus gym, charging laptops and stealing wifi from the library made him not-so-far-off from the rest of his piers. The one thing separating him from the others was his internal desire to keep his van a secret; which caused him to distance himself from everyone, not having normal conversations and even going so far as to speak to himself, on a regular basis.

The upside to living in a van and eating plain, cheap, meals was that he estimated his ‘cost of living’ to be ~$4,300 a year. He went on to compare his living cost to that of an individual who would pay for the ‘normalities’ we American consumers do today, i.e. rent, utilities, car note, car insurance, food, gas, student loan payments, and luxuries. Estimating around ~$24,000 annual ‘cost of living’ for those of the  aforementioned, he shows the astronomical difference. Ken was greatly influenced by Henry David Thoreau and his writing of Walden Pond (a book I intend on reading in the near future). Thoreau speaks of transcendentalism, an idea that, in my best understanding, is that one must first be able to understand and relate to nature and primal instincts before being able to understand one’s self.

Transcendentalism is discarding and striping yourself of all ‘non-essential’ items/things/people in a search for a true understanding of your limits and character. Thoreau spent a mere 2 years on Walden Pond (which btw was located a few hundred yards from his mothers home, she would do his laundry whilst living on the pond), writing about his distaste for the society-mandated consumer, working their entire lives to buy more ‘things’. Ken echos these views in his book, but shows where he draws the line (and in my opinion) by writing that he one-upped Henry.


This book opened my eyes in a lot of ways. I can admit that I have had spending sprees to buy more ‘things’, feeling a need to buy the best equipment, or inattentively spend on the weekends. I challenge myself now to take a second to think “do I really need this?” before pulling the trigger. Money shouldn’t be everything, but it is amazing what people in this world will do for it and with it.

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