How to choose the right mat­tr­ress for your boat



Get­ting a good night’s rest is im­por­tant on any cruis­ing boat. Back in the early days, a sailor was lucky to have a can­vas ham­mock strung up in the bow of a ship to sleep in. Thank­fully, to­day’s boaters have things a bit bet­ter, but get­ting a good night’s sleep aboard your boat is still not al­ways easy. Be­ing gen­tly rocked to bed is all very well, but if your mat­tress is not com­fort­able, that gentle rock­ing can turn into a night­mare.

Although boat­builders are slowly mak­ing im­prove­ments in their bed­ding, most bunks are noth­ing more than a slab of foam rub­ber over a ply­wood base. This may be OK for an oc­ca­sional week­end cruise, but for any­thing more, the old foam slab sim­ply does not cut it.

Although we can­not take our mat­tress from home with us on the boat, there is hope. Newer ma­te­ri­als and com­pa­nies that spe­cial­ize in boat bed­ding can bring the com­fort of home to our boats. In fact, there are so many choices, try­ing to pick the right bed­ding for your needs can be over­whelm­ing. There re­ally is no sim­ple an­swer to the ques­tion, “What is the best mat­tress for my boat?” Ev­ery­one has dif­fer­ent needs and com­fort lev­els, so know­ing what is avail­able will help in se­lect­ing the best fit for you and your crew alike.

The first thing to think about is how you plan to use your boat and what your spe­cific needs are. A boat bed can be any­thing from a sim­ple and in­ex­pen­sive foam mat­tress to a cus­tom-made spring mat­tress, sim­i­lar to what you might have in your house. If you’re only plan­ning to spend a few nights aboard per sea­son, there is lit­tle point in spend­ing thou­sands of dol­lars on a cus­tom mat­tress. How­ever, if you plan to live aboard or cruise ex­ten­sively, it may make sense to spend a bit more. Thinking about how you plan to use your boat is a good start.

Be­fore set­ting out in search of that new and (hope­fully) more com­fort­able mat­tress, you will have to take your bud­get into con­sid­er­a­tion. Although some may say a good night’s rest is price­less, for many of us cost is a fac­tor, so it’s im­por­tant to get the best op­tion for the best value. Good cus­tom mat­tresses can be rather pricy, and less ex­pen­sive op­tions may work just as well for the bud­get-minded.

The type of mat­tress you use at home can help you se­lect a com­fort-

able mat­tress for the boat. For ex­am­ple, if you like a firm mat­tress, this is what will likely work best for the boat. You should also dis­cuss op­tions with your part­ner, as their com­fort is equally im­por­tant. Next, set your bud­get. As you shop you will find that prices vary widely.


Armed with a bud­get and knowl­edge of what will work best for you and your boat, it’s time to think about the types of mat­tresses avail­able. The most ba­sic is the sim­ple foam slab. Of course, we all know noth­ing is sim­ple when it comes to boats, foam choices for your mat­tress in­cluded. The most com­mon type of foam used is polyurethane. This is a ba­sic, in­ex­pen­sive and com­mon foam used in most seat cush­ions. It holds up pretty well when it comes to nor­mal wear and tear, but even­tu­ally breaks down with use. Polyurethane foam comes in var­i­ous den­si­ties and lev­els of firm­ness. Be­cause of its low cost as well as the va­ri­eties in which it is avail­able, it is a good choice for many. It can also be used in com­bi­na­tion with other types of foams to build a cus­tom mat­tress.

La­tex foam is another op­tion. Many feel that an ad­van­tage of la­tex is its free­dom from chem­i­cal gassing, which in turn makes it health­ier. If health­ier is what you’re look­ing for, be care­ful to se­lect nat­u­ral la­tex and not syn­thetic. Nat­u­ral la­tex is also re­ported to be mold and mildew re­sis­tant: per­haps the best rea­son of all to se­lect it over the other types of foam. La­tex is a bit heav­ier, and some have re­ported that it is hot­ter to sleep on: some­thing else to con­sider if you plan on head­ing to the trop­ics.

Your third op­tion would be mem­ory foam. Like poly and la­tex, there are dif­fer­ent types and lev­els of firm­ness. Mem­ory foam is re­ported to be hot­ter to sleep on, as it does not breathe as well as the other types of foams. For some it is the most com­fort­able, but it might be a bit too soft if you’re us­ing it for com­bi­na­tion berth/seat cush­ions.

It’s im­por­tant to also keep in mind that foam sur­face firm­ness is in­de­pen­dent from foam den­sity. High-den­sity foams can be pro­duced to be very soft, and low-den­sity foams can be made to be very firm. There is no such thing as “hard” or “firm” den­sity. High-den­sity foam prod­ucts, for ex­am­ple, gen­er­ally of­fer a great deal of sup­port, but they may ac­tu­ally be fairly soft. Firm­ness is a mea­sure­ment of the sur­face feel of the foam, while sup­port is the foam’s abil­ity to “push back” against weight and pre­vent the foam from “bot­tom­ing out.” Higher-den­sity foam helps pre­vent the feel­ing of hav­ing the foam col­lapse be­neath body weight. Both firm­ness and sup­port af­fect com­fort and it helps to try out dif­fer­ent types of foam be­fore se­lect­ing what is right for you.

For most, a com­bi­na­tion of firm­ness and den­sity works best. You can get a wide va­ri­ety of feels and com­fort by lay­er­ing dif­fer­ent types and den­si­ties of foams. Due to space and over­head clear­ances the thick­ness may be lim­ited to four to six inches. In some cases the mat­tress must serve dual pur­poses for sit­ting and sleep­ing. By lay­er­ing dif­fer­ent foams you can get just the right feel for your par­tic­u­lar needs.

Many start with a firm base or core to sup­port weight, then add a softer layer and fi­nally a mem­ory foam top­per de­pend­ing on the firm­ness you pre­fer. Us­ing this method you can achieve the per­fect fit for your com­fort level and use. There are sev­eral com­pa­nies that spe­cial­ize in build­ing just such mat­tresses com­plete with cov­ers. If you have the bud­get, this would be a good op­tion, as you get a pro­fes­sion­ally made prod­uct that can add com­fort and value to your boat. If your bud­get does not al­low for a cus­tom-made mat­tress, you could sim­ply buy the foam needed and make your own. This is not hard, and you can get things just the way you like them. Keep in mind any foam mat­tress should have a fab­ric cover to pro­tect it from dirt and soil­ing, so if you plan on do­ing it your­self, keep in mind that your sewing skills should be up to par.


Some peo­ple pre­fer the com­fort of spring mat­tresses, which can be cus­tom made for the size and shape of your boat. These tend to be thicker than foam mat­tresses, so you will want good over­head space when con­sid­er­ing them as an op­tion. Another is­sue is that of the springs rust­ing. How­ever, I have not found this to be a prob­lem and rarely find that it is worth the

ex­pense of up­grad­ing to stain­less steel. Also keep in mind that spring mat­tresses do not fold up and bend like foam ones, so get­ting them into the boat could be an is­sue. That said, you can or­der spring mat­tresses with hinges. These can also be help­ful when ac­cess­ing stor­age un­der a berth.

sin­gle one-piece mat­tress is eas­ier and sim­pler to deal with in gen­eral, it may pre­sent prob­lems when try­ing to ac­cess stor­age un­der the berth. If this ac­cess is only oc­ca­sional, it should not be a prob­lem, but for a stor­age area you want to get into of­ten, it makes sense to break the mat­tress up into smaller sec­tions. Most builders use a sin­gle large cush­ion or mat­tress, but this does not mean you have to do the same when up­grad­ing. One of the prob­lems with split­ting a mat­tress is that it leaves a seam or gap that may open up as you sleep, mak­ing for an un­com­fort­able night. To over­come this prob­lem you can add a fab­ric hinge on the top of the mat­tress.


Another thing to con­sider is keep­ing the mat­tress dry. A damp or hu­mid mat­tress can ruin a good night’s rest in a hurry. Trapped mois­ture can also lead to mold and mildew, which may af­fect your health. Air flow is im­por­tant to keep­ing the mat­tress dry, so al­low­ing the mat­tress to breathe is im­por­tant. For­tu­nately, there are some good ways to let air to flow around the mat­tress. Polyester bat­ting, a fiber weave that will al­low air flow around the top and bot­tom, will help al­most any type of mat­tress. Re­cently I saw some folks us­ing a 1in layer of Quick Dry out­door foam for the bot­tom layer of their mat­tresses. Do­ing this pre­vents the mat­tress from wick­ing up any mois­ture from con­den­sa­tion or leaks that run un­der­neath it.

Hav­ing a bit of air space un­der the mat­tress to al­low for air flow will also help. Many have had suc­cess with drilling holes in the top of a ply­wood bunk sup­port. Oth­ers have used wood slats to re­place ply­wood bunk tops. If you do not want to, or can­not mod­ify the top of your bunk, there are sev­eral other meth­ods to el­e­vate the mat­tress and al­low air flow un­der­neath. One of the most pop­u­lar is Hy­per Vent, a plas­tic fiber mat that el­e­vates the mat­tress ¾in and al­lows free flow of air. This ma­te­rial can be eas­ily be cut to fit odd shapes found in boats. I have heard of some boaters us­ing large bub­ble wrap, Dry Deck tiles, camp mats and even As­tro­Turf with some suc­cess.

Another in­ter­est­ing prod­uct is the Froli sys­tem. This ap­proach uses plas­tic squares on a cen­ter spring pivot. The squares are placed a cou­ple of

Cus­tom mat­tresses can be de­signed with re­mov­able parts for eas­ier ac­cess to stor­age un­der your v-berth (top); a mem­ory foam mat­tress of­fers com­fort and con­ve­nience and you can have it split ver­ti­cally (left) and hor­i­zon­tally (right) inches apart from each other un­der the mat­tress, form­ing a grid of squares that not only el­e­vates the mat­tress, but be­cause they are free to move on the pivot, al­lows them to also act a bit like a layer of springs adding to the com­fort of the mat­tress. This sys­tem works well as it adds to com­fort and air­flow, and is eas­ily adapted to the odd shapes, of­ten found on boats.

If you are try­ing to im­prove the com­fort of an ex­ist­ing mat­tress, there are a few things that can make a big dif­fer­ence. A top­per of Mem­ory or other foam can be a great suc­cess. Most peo­ple choose a 2in to 3in piece of Mem­ory Foam for this, but even a thin layer of quilted bat­ting can help. Cus­tom-fit top­pers can be pur­chased to fit your needs. Toss­ing a piece of foam on your ex­ist­ing mat­tress may help, but you will get bet­ter re­sults if the top­per has a fab­ric cover. Us­ing an un­der­mat­tress sys­tem, such as the Froli sys­tem or sprung wood slats, can add fur­ther com­fort with­out hav­ing to re­place the ex­ist­ing mat­tress.

There are many op­tions avail­able to im­prove your rest. If your bud­get al­lows, there are sev­eral com­pa­nies that can help you se­lect and fit the per­fect mat­tress for your needs. Like­wise, DIYers will find many op­tions that are easy to do. Whether you are re­plac­ing or just mod­i­fy­ing an ex­ist­ing in­stal­la­tion, there are many ways to help you and your crew get a bet­ter night’s rest. s Capt. Wayne Can­ning lives on his Ir­win 40 VAYU, in Fort My­ers, FL. A ma­rine pro­fes­sional for more than 40 years, he is now a full-time ma­rine sur­veyor, free­lance writer and au­thor, with his up­com­ing book Restor­ing Fiber­glass Boats due out this sum­mer.

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