How to Buy Mattresses for Bunk Beds: The Essential Guide


Bunk beds are great for saving floor space in rooms with more than one inhabitant. They make kids’ rooms fun and guest rooms efficient. Unfortunately, the bed frames don’t come with mattresses, and depending on what kind of bunk you have, the mattress sizes can be anything. So, how do you go about picking the right mattresses for your bunk beds?

How do you buy mattresses for bunk beds? No special type of mattress is required for a bunk bed. Determine what size mattress you need. Then decide if you want foam, innerspring or a hybrid. Finally, determine the factors that are most important to you and your lifestyle, such as cost, durability, warranty and sustainability.

Like just about everything, there are many viewpoints on which mattress is best and why. Bunk bed mattresses, like traditional bed mattresses, are subject to personal preference and comfort. But only to a certain degree.  Unlike traditional beds, bunk beds have height limitations, as well as width and length to consider.

What Size Mattresses Do Bunk Beds Use?

At the risk of stating the obvious, the size of the mattress depends on the bunk bed. Traditional bunk beds accommodate twin size mattresses, top, and bottom. They measure (in inches) 39”x75.” Some designs offer a full-size bunk on the bottom.  This, obviously, will take a full-size mattress, which measures 54”x74.” 

You’ll notice a full is expected to be an inch shorter on a full than a twin. Since bunk beds have to be equal in length, this just means there may be a bit of a gap on the lower bunk between the mattress and frame.

Additionally, there are twin XL, queen-sized bottom bunks and multiple alternative or custom-designed bunk beds. There are even 3-bunk bunk beds for your consideration. So far, there is nothing unusual here in terms of mattress size. Just pick up a couple of twin mattresses  (or whatever) and move on, right?  Actually, with bunk beds, the third measurement comes into play.  The height or depth of the mattress.

Mattress Height Matters Too

If your mattress is too tall, it can impact the space available on the bottom bunk and directly compromise the safety of the top bunk.  Clearly, neither are areas you want compromised for your kids. An “average” bunk bed has 33 inches of clearance between the bottom and top bunk.  That is without mattress.

If you go pick up a really nice 10 inch memory foam mattress, you have now given your child less than 2 feet to sit up in without bumping his/her head on the top bunk. That is very little space and will almost certainly result in some bruised noggins. Most professionals recommend a mattress height/depth of around 7 inches. This is sufficient for comfort and support, while maintaining an adequate amount of space for a child.

If your child is tall or almost adult-sized, they are probably no longer fitting well in the bottom bunk of the bunk bed anyway. The top bunk generally does not have the same space restriction that the bottom bunk does, so a deeper mattress is fine there, right?

Consider the Safety Bars on the Top Bunk

Not so much. What you have to consider with the mattress on the top bunk is the side bars. If the mattress is too high, your child could roll right over those side bars, which are in place to prevent falls. With the top bunk being around 59” tall, that is a LOOOONG fall for a little person and could actually cause injury.

According to the CPSC, it is regulation for the top of the guard rail to be 5 inches higher than the top of your mattress. And the recommendation for a top bunk mattress is 5 to 8 inches tall. Keep in mind that the average top bunk guard rail is built to accommodate a mattress of 8 inches to meet this regulation. Look for a guardrail that measures at least 13 inches high from the attachment point, meaning the base of the frame.

Do Bunk Beds Need Special Mattresses?

In a single word, no.  Bunk beds can use any mattress that fits. We’ve already discussed sizes and dimensions. However, we haven’t talked about foundations. A traditional bed generally utilizes a box spring. Some use slats or platforms for support. In any event, there is something to support the mattress and prevent it sagging.

Bunk beds also need support. However, due to space limitations, their support is different. Some bunk beds come with slats, and others have plywood on brackets. You need to look at your design to determine what type of foundation will work for your beds.

Bunkie Boards

Bunkie boards are one such foundation. A Bunkie board is basically a cloth covered plywood or particle board. Some commercial Bunkie boards also feature a light level of padding, for additional comfort. As I noted, Bunkie boards are available commercially.  Depending on size and quality, they can range from around $40 to over $150. 

Another option is do-it-yourself.  Measure the area, get a piece of plywood or particle board, cover it with fabric and padding if you choose and, presto, you have a Bunkie board. Bunkie boards are also used frequently with daybeds or platform beds. Basically, any type of bed that has wide slats or areas where a mattress will tend to sag and needs some additional support.

Traditional mattresses come in a wide variety of styles and support levels. The same is true with mattresses for your bunk bed. Let’s look at those next.

What is the Best Mattress Type for Bunk Beds?

Something else to consider when picking out your bunk bed mattress is the material from which it’s made. Here are some of the better options based on the depth requirement of most bunk beds.

Foam Mattress

Many people swear by their memory foam mattress. However, you should know there are different types of foam mattresses to choose from. There is memory foam, which most of us are familiar with, and natural latex foam, which you may not know much about.

Memory Foam

Memory foam mattresses are also known as viscoelastic foam.   It is a polyurethane that is designed with many different chemicals. The method by which these chemicals are combined and integrated is dependent on manufacturer. These differences cause the underlying differences you will find in quality. 

However, the common denominator with all memory foam is it a very solid and dense material, which keeps substances from passing through it.  Memory foam is also a highly elastic material. It will bend and conform to your body while you’re sitting or lying on it and return to its original shape when you aren’t.

Memory foam has been around for over 50 years.  It was originally designed by NASA to improve comfort and safety for astronauts during launch. The comfort of memory foam, particularly after its release by Tempurpedic, has made it a popular and common mattress type. Viscoelastic memory foam is now being combined with other materials that can help regular body temperature, for cooler sleeping at night. 

When the foam and materials are condensed by the sleeper, the net result is a comfortable, supportive, cool night’s rest. There are multiple levels or types of memory foam to consider. 

1. Traditional memory foam. This is what we’ve been discussing so far. It is a polymer known as polyurethane.  A polymer is defined as “a chemical compound with molecules bonded together in long, repeating chains”.  Polymers can be both synthetically made, like polyurethane, or naturally occurring, like rubber.

The biggest drawback to traditional memory foam is that it has a tendency to retain heat. Though this may be a lovely benefit in the winter, if you live in a warm or humid area, summertime can become brutal.

2. Open cell memory foam. This is basic memory foam, but with a different internal structure. It is designed to allow for increased air movement within the mattress. The increased air movement helps pull heat away from the body, rendering the mattress cooler.

3. Gel infused memory foam.  This type of memory foam has been infused with a gel.  The gel comes in 2 different types. The first type of gel simply absorbs heat. It has been described like having an ice pack in the freezer. Not that it’s that cold, but it simply absorbs heat in the same fashion.

The other type of gel is made of a “phase-changing material”. That’s a really fancy way of stating that the material actually changes its heat absorption properties, depending on the heat available. If the bed is warm, the gel absorbs more heat. When the bed is cool, the gel absorbs less heat. This allows your body to help regulate the temperature of the mattress itself.

An unintended, but certainly welcome side benefit of the gen infused memory foam mattress is that the gel microbeads actually can increase the density of the mattress. Increased density means increased comfort.

The advantages of memory foam mattresses are fairly well known.  They offer excellent support, assist in keeping the spine aligned properly and can help relieve back pain or pain caused by pressure spots. Additionally, it has been shown to be really good for people with allergies.

The biggest disadvantages, aside from the tendency to retain heat are the weight, which makes it difficult to move and manage, and the tendency to hold odors. As it isn’t waterproof, liquids spilled or accidentally discharged, will soak right into the mattress itself.

Another issue for some is called “off gassing”. When new, polyurethane has a tendency to release VOCs or volatile organic compounds. In sensitive individuals, this smell can be quite overwhelming. It generally dissipates over time and is gone in a few days to a few weeks.

Natural Latex Foam

Natural latex foam is also a polymer, but it is a naturally occurring one. It is made from the sap of rubber trees. That sap is whipped into a froth and then baked to achieve latex layers. As the rubber trees are not damaged, they are able to produce sap for over 30 years, making natural latex foam a sustainable and ecologically friendly choice.

Interestingly enough, the density of the mattress is determined by the number of latex layers used. Therefore, the mattress can be customized. In fact, each side of the same mattress can offer different densities and resulting different levels of firmness.

Like memory foam, natural latex foam is form adaptive. It shapes itself to your body configuration and returns to its natural shape when the pressure is removed. However, natural latex foam makes those adjustments quicker than memory foam does.

There are two types of natural latex foams. Talalay foam is lighter and has more air in the material. This results in a less dense and less heavy mattress.  Also, the air helps with heat control issues. The Dunlop foam is much denser and heavier than Talalay. That increased density helps it hold its shape longer, reducing sagging and increasing long-term durability.

Advantages of natural latex foam is that it is all natural, excellent for individuals with allergies (unless that allergy is to latex), it’s ecologically sustainable and allows for mattress customization. Disadvantages are that it does not conform to the body as well as memory foam does.  It also allows for more motion transfer than memory foam. 

Inner Spring

Leaving foam completely behind, let’s look at the more traditional inner spring mattress option. The innerspring mattress design goes back to the 1880s and was inspired by the shock-absorbing seat cushions utilized by horse-drawn carriages. By the 1930s, the inner spring mattress was the most popular type of sleep surface and that remains the case as of today. The inner spring mattress consists of coils, comfort materials and fabric. 

Coils

There are primary types of coils involved in innerspring mattresses. The coil type plays the most important role in determining what the mattress feels like, how long it lasts and how expensive it is.

1. Bonnell coils. These are also known as “open” coils and are the most basic type of mattress spring. Bonnell coils are hourglass shaped and frequently wired together to form a continuous unit. This design makes them very durable, but very poor at controlling motion transfer.

2. Offset coils. Like Bonnell coils, these are also hourglass shaped.  The biggest difference is that the bottom of the coil is slightly offset, creating a hinging effect. That effect makes this type of coil better able to conform to the curves of the body. 

3. Continuous coils. Continuous coils are designed more like offset coils but have several rows of single wires molded into circles. This gives them a long lifespan, but not much support.

4. Pocketed coils. Pocketed coils have a different design.  Each coil is encased in a fabric pocket or sleeve. As the coils are not connected like the other options, they are able to move independently. This independent movement allows for better form adaptability and much reduced motion transfer than the other coil options.

It is important to note that the material the coil is made from and the number of coils involved play pivotal roles in determining firmness, comfort and durability of the mattress. The higher the number of coils, the firmer the mattress.

Comfort Materials

Laying on top of metal springs can be uncomfortable, to say the least. Manufacturers have come up with a variety of ways to reduce that discomfort.

1. Comfort Layer. This is the top layer of the mattress. It can be composed of varying depths of material.  The most common comfort layer materials are memory foam, latex foam or synthetic foam. This layer is designed to provide cushioning and decrease pressure spots.

2. Cooling Materials. As we previously discussed, foams tend to trap body heat and people do not sleep well when they’re too hot. Some mattress manufacturers address this issue by adding cooling materials like gel or graphite to their comfort materials. 

3. Comfort Coils. This is a combination of coil designs. Pocketed coils are placed on top of a more traditional steel coil base.  This gives the stability of the coil base with the increased comfort of the pocketed coil.

4. Pillow Top. There are two different types of pillow tops to choose from.  The convention pillow top lies on top of the comfort layer, with a gap between the two. A Euro-style pillow top is inserted underneath the top cover layer, flush with the mattress edges. This gives the bed a cleaner look and reduces the risk of the pillow top shifting or losing shape.

5. Cover. The cover is the outermost portion of the mattress and the part you actually lie on. It should be made of a material that is soft, durable and breathable.

The benefits of an innerspring mattress include heat reduction, cost, durability, and support of multiple sleep styles. The disadvantages are primarily motion transfer is substantial and inner spring mattresses are more likely to cause pressure point discomfort than foam mattresses.

Combination or Hybrid Mattress

This is pretty straight forward. A combination or hybrid mattress integrates both inner spring coils for strength and durability and foam, whether it’s memory foam or latex foam for comfort and body adaptability. A basic rule of thumb is if there is more than 3” of foam, it is a hybrid.

What are the best mattresses for bunk beds?

There are a LOT of mattresses to choose from and only you know what your priorities are. You may need to consider cost, weight, design, allergic issues, or any other factor.

I’m not here to make your decision for you. I am, however, going to go over the 5 best bunk bed mattresses. I have NOT slept on each one of these, my top 5 are based on research including cost, materials utilized, durability and expert opinions.

1. Linenspa Hybrid. Ironically, after just telling you I haven’t slept on all of these, I have to admit this is the mattress I sleep on at home. I have a platform bed, not bunk beds, but some of the same concerns apply.

Things I really like about this mattress include the hybrid aspect, which allows for a nice firm strong sleep experience, coupled with the support and adaptability of memory foam. My personal mattress also has the gel infusion, to help control heat.

The Linenspa hybrid mattress comes in a variety of sizes and in depths of 8”, 10” or 12” to choose from.  Remember, you’re looking for a mattress around 7” or so, so the 8” is best for the bunk beds.  

One drawback to the hybrid is flipping the mattress.  If you’re a person who believes the mattress needs to be turned routinely, you may find that the underside is less comfortable than the upper side.

The Linenspa hybrid for bunk beds in the 8” twin-size and comes with a 10-year manufacturer’s warranty.

2. Signature Sleep Reversible Hybrid. This mattress comes in 8”, 10” and 12” depths. Again, the 8” is best for your bunk beds. 

One of the things I really like about this mattress is the reversible aspect. Like I noted before, flipping a hybrid mattress can become uncomfortable. The Signature Sleep Reversible Hybrid has addressed this concern, putting memory foam all the way around the mattress.  This can increase the durability of the mattress over time.

Two things I don’t like are cost and warranty. The Signature Sleep is significantly more expensive than the Linenspa and has a much shorter warranty time.

This Signature Sleep Reversible Hybrid bed, in 8” twin size and comes with a 1- year limited warranty.

3. Zinus Gel-Infused Green Tea Memory Foam. Yep, it’s a heck of a name. But then, it’s a pretty darn impressive memory foam mattress.

The foam is Certi-PUR, U.S. certified for durability, performance and content. It is gel infused for improved heat management.

It is also infused with natural green tea extract and activated charcoal to help absorb moisture, eliminate odors and keep the mattress fresh.

What I like is the heat and odor management, the cost and the warranty. 

What I don’t like are too many comments about the bed never fully “inflating”. The mattress comes very compressed for shipment. It generally takes 24-48 hours for decompression to occur. However, sometimes that decompression never seems to really happen fully. 

This mattress is available in 6”, 8”, 10” and 12” depths. Though I recommend considering the 6”, I will use the 8” for comparison purposes. The 8” twin-size Zinus Gel-Infused Green Tea Memory Foam mattress it comes with a 10-year “worry-free” limited warranty.

4. Wayfair Sleep Medium Gel Memory Foam.  Crafted with 3 layers of hypoallergenic gel foam, the Wayfair Sleep Gel Memory Foam mattress features a tight top and low motion transfer. 

Due to gel infusion, the cooling, breathable design allows for decreased heat issues.

What I like is that Wayfair offers a 100-day free trial of the mattress. Additionally, they have financing options, if up front costs are an issue.

What I don’t like is it is, again, a bed in a box. Wayfair advises it can take up to 7 days to fully decompress.  That’s a long time to wait for a good night’s sleep.

The 8” twin size Wayfair Sleep Medium Gel Memory Foam mattress is available through Wayfair.com for around $120 and comes with a 10-year warranty.

5. Shaylee 7” Innerspring Mattress. Also, from Wayfair, this is the only innerspring mattress to make my list. 

It is made of 312 continuous coils of tempered steel, individually wrapped and covered with comfort layers of foam and polyester fiber.

What I like about this mattress is the same as the 100-day free trial and financing options. Cost and warranty are both positives, as well.

What I don’t like is that darn bed in a box concept.

This 7” Shaylee Innerspring Mattress is available in twin-size from Wayfair.com for about $135 and comes with a 10-year warranty.

Final Thoughts

You may have noticed that no natural latex foam mattresses made my top 5. That is simply due to the cost factor, not quality or comfort. I truly think the natural and ecologically sustainable features of the natural latex foam make it a very attractive option for the right buyer. My research found a 9” twin-size. If that is a price tag that you’re comfortable with, it is certainly worth exploring farther.

My opinions may not match your own, but the important thing is to find a mattress that meets safety requirements, but also keep your children or guests comfortable. Before you go shopping, know the measurements of your bunk beds, and then research or measure the mattresses before you buy.

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