DIY: Magnetic blackout window covers

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Like we mentioned in an earlier post, the van remained empty for about two months after we received it from the dealership. We were still planning out what we wanted to build. In the meantime, we were using it on the weekends for climbing trips. The first DIY project we tackled was to make insulated “blackout” window covers so that we could have some privacy inside the car wherever we were parked for the night.

Our window covers are made of Reflectix insulation covered with fabric and secured to the windows with magnets.


Cost: ~$75

Difficulty: Beginner
This was our first sewing project ever, so it is definitely something that anybody with access to a sewing machine can tackle.

Tools: Sewing machine



  1. Cut Reflectix
    1. Create a stencil out of newspaper, poster board, or anything that allows you to trace the contour of the window accurately.
    2. Use the stencil to transfer the window shape onto a piece of Reflectix.
      • Due to the varying widths of the windows, it is preferable to use a 48-in wide roll of Reflectix. If the roll of Reflectix you have is not wide enough, use aluminum tape to join two pieces of Reflectix to form a wider piece.
    3. Cut it out with scissors.
  2. Cut fabric
    1. Lay the shaped piece of Reflectix on top of your outward facing fabric, and cut a square/rectangular piece that leaves about 2 inches of excess on the sides. (This excess is where you will sew the magnets into later on.)
    2. Use this cutout to cut an exact copy out of your inward facing fabric.
  3. Glue Reflectix and fabric together
    1. Lay the fabric cutout on smooth surface face down. (The side that you will see faces down.)
    2. Make sure to work out as many of the wrinkles in the fabric as you can. We used an iron.
    3. Note the application directions on the 3M adhesive spray bottle.
    4. Spray the adhesive onto one side of your Reflectix cutout. (Wait a bit, per adhesive application instructions)
    5. Carefully raise the Reflectix cutout above your sheet of fabric (adhesive facing down), lower, drop, and press.
    6. Repeat steps 1-5 for the other piece of fabric, taking care to try to match up the square corners of the fabric.
  4. Trim excess fabric
    1. Trim the excess fabric to contour the Reflectix. (Maintain the ~2 inch excess for the magnets!)
    2. Too much is better than too little. This involved a little bit of trial and error. We just continued trimming the fabric off until the ideal window shape was obtained.
  5. Determine magnet placement
    1. Use duct tape to temporarily attach magnets to the corners of your cover.
    2. Test the covers, and adjust the magnet positions until you get the right amount of contact to the sheet metal around the windows.
      • Again, some trial and error is involved here.

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  1. Sew magnets
    1. Hand sew a tight circle around each of the magnets.
    2. For extra support, we also hand sewed buttons in the center of the magnets to further ensure they held their place.
  2. Sew seam bindings
    1. Check out this helpful Youtube video.
  3. Spray fabric protector (Optional)
    1. We used a fabric protector spray to protect against moisture since these covers will come in contact with a lot of condensation as you travel.


It’s been more than one year since we’ve made these window covers. Here are some thoughts:

  • These window covers provide privacy and keep the van much better insulated than without.
  • The window covers (especially the ones you interact with often) will lose their shape over time. We’ve recently taped magnets to the sheet metal around the affected windows so the magnets in the covers have a stronger attachment. Checkout the picture gallery for examples.
  • Even with the fabric protector spray, the color of the window covers will fade over time from the UV exposure. You may consider reapplying the spray every once in a while.

1 year

Planning our van build was tedious. It was our first time building anything from scratch, so not only did we have to decide what we wanted to build, we had to learn how to build it, from square one.

To give you an idea of how time consuming the process was for us, we ordered our van from the dealership in October 2015, and picked it up in February 2016. The van stayed empty until May 2016. All the while, we were constantly researching. Constantly.

How much water do we need? Where should we mount the water tank? Will it freeze? What insulation should we use? Do we need a heater? How do we want to cook? How many batteries should we get? Where do we mount them? Do we want solar? How many solar panels will we need to charge those batteries? Hardwood, vinyl, or laminate floors? Do we need a toilet?

Endless questions.

It’s easy to get caught up in the details of everything involved. As intimidated as we were feeling, we finally decided that we had learned, and planned, enough. We needed to get started, with anything, really.

We spent almost every weekend from May to December executing our plan. We were both working full time jobs at the time, and our weeks looked something like this:

Monday – Wednesday (noon): “What are we building this coming weekend?” “What do we need to order online?” Order everything by Wednesday at noon, so that we have it by the weekend.

Thursday – Friday: Review how we are building it.

Friday – Sunday (night, usually Monday in the A.M.): Build, eat, build, eat, build, sleep.

On November 30, 2016, we ended the lease at our apartment, and on December 1, we began living in the van full time.

Today is our one year van life anniversary!

With that year of experience, we feel like we’ve gathered enough test results from our build to share with you all what works, what doesn’t, and what we might do differently.

We’ll be breaking down small parts of our van in as much detail as we can in blog posts in the “Van Build” category on this blog.

We learned so much from the rest of the community, and are excited to give back.

Either subscribe here, or follow us on Instagram to get updates!

Van life was never part of the plan

75 on the dash, channel ORANGE on blast. The tires peel softly beneath the bass lines as mountain skylines inch past our eye line. Yeah, we’re going fast, but the moment’s infinite.

“The lazy man works twice” Andre professed in between chuckles. He had discovered a bug he introduced to our application by cutting corners a few months back. “Whenever my dad caught me cutting corners, he would say, ‘the lazy man works twice’ and so whenever I catch myself these days, I say it too, as a reminder.”

For being in his mid-twenties, Andre had the wisdom of someone much older. Likely the result of his adventist upbringing, he had a very instinctual bird’s-eye view on life. He knew how to appreciate experiences and live in the moment. “YOLO” he would exclaim, whenever in doubt.

“So, what’s your plan?”, Andre asked one sunny California winter afternoon. The Silicon Valley startup we both worked for was in the middle of a large wave of employee churn, and we were having a 1:1 chat to figure out our own plans.

“Like, for life? What’s your 5 year life plan?”

“Well, in 5 years, I think Nicole and I will get married, and we’ll probably start to think about kids. I’ll still be climbing. I’ll probably continue working in software, but I’d like to try out people management.”

Van life was never part of the plan.

On an ordinary night in January 2016, our dear friends Andre and Hau passed away in a car accident. Hau died on impact, while Andre passed away in the emergency room hours later.

Those guys were a huge part of our lives, and I’ll save Hau’s story for later, but losing Andre was, from my point of view, one of the major catalysts for the adventure we’re currently on.

In October of 2015, after lots of back and forth, Nicole and I preordered our brand new Mercedes Sprinter.

Fun fact: Dealerships in the Bay Area don’t usually carry completely empty cargo Sprinters. They’re usually passenger focused. So, get ready for a several month wait time if you’re looking to buy a brand new cargo van.

Back then, we lived a typical (for any large metropolitan area, I’m sure) weekend warrior rock climber’s life. We worked stable jobs, lived in a 1 bedroom apartment, and trained relentlessly at the climbing gym in between work hours until Friday evenings rolled around, and our real lives resumed.

Living that lifestyle, and learning from the examples of some of our close climbing friends, lead us to consider upgrading our camping situation from the cramped trunk of a modest Toyota wagon, to the spacious cabin of a shiny new Sprinter. We worked hard, and made it happen.

I remember when I told Andre that we had finally ordered the van. He was psyched. In a frenzy, he pulled up listings for van parts, and articles about other conversions. He sent links to stories of people who had built vans. He gathered data about how much life would cost if he got a van as well. He was showing his excitement for us in his own, infectious, way.

In February, roughly one month after he passed away, Nicole and I picked up our van from the dealership. While still deeply hurting, the excitement that Andre helped cultivate was still there, lingering on the tip of our minds.

If you ever talk to a grievance counselor, they’ll tell you to be conscious of triggers in life that may resurface memories of the ones you’ve lost.

For me, the van was one big (small?), ~82 square foot, trigger of memories of Andre.

As the year progressed, and Nicole and I poured our hearts into planning and building, the emotions of any success, or mistake, were magnified by the thought of what life might be like if Andre were still around to share those feelings with us.

The 7 months of weekends that we spent building what is now @vanwardbound, unintentionally provided the most useful therapy I could have asked for to get me through a tough time.

When the van was nearing completion, ideas of giving up our apartment and most of our possessions to move in permanently, and eventually hitting the road, started floating around our heads. It wasn’t an easy decision. Weighing our responsibilities against our happiness prompted quite a few heated debates between us, and between our parents. But, when the decision was finally made, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of how psyched Andre would have been for us.

And so, here we are. More than one full month into our year-ish long road trip around North America. Currently in Colorado, but heading toward Wyoming.



Hey there 👋!

We’re Nicole and Terence, just a couple of rock climbers from California, about to set out on a year-ish long adventure around North America in our self converted Sprinter van (@vanwardbound).

So many people have contributed to this trip over the past couple of years, and we just want to say thank you to everyone for the love and support…and understanding 😛.

We’ll be headed toward our first destination, Rifle, Colorado, in the next couple of days! Get psyched!