How to Pick the Perfect Camper Van Mattress for Great Sleep

Ensuring exceptional slumber is a key component to enjoying life on the open road.

Woman sitting up in bed on a camper van mattress
Photo Credit: Twenty20

With the coronavirus pandemic pummeling its way through the United States and air travel more or less at a standstill, people have turned to the open road to get out of the house and satisfy their thirst for adventure. Case in point: Seventy-two percent of Americans said they planned to travel by car in 2020, according to the Generali Global Assistance Future of Travel survey.

Those who want to prolong their adventurous days into weeks, months, or even years are turning to RVs and camper vans. The RV Industry Association (RVIA) noted there were 54 percent more RVs shipped in July 2020 compared to the year prior (also making it the highest July shipment numbers in 40 years), and Jared McCauslin, chief operating officer of van conversion and rental company VanDOit, says sales have doubled since the pandemic began.

During summer the interest was primarily fueled by—you guessed it—sunny, warm-weather getaways. But two new trends are also driving the growth: people looking for mobile offices and the economic turmoil resulting from the pandemic.

Friends stand outside their camper van looking at scenery.
This summer, sent two real-life best friends out to explore Texas in a custom VanDOit Ford Transit camper van. Read about their trip—including their incredible itinerary—at Discovering the Rejuvenating Power of the Open Road.
Photo Credit: Knox Photographics LLC

“A pull-behind trailer or big RV cannot replace another car loan, but with a camper van you’re able to sell your daily driver and use your new living quarters for all transportation needs,” McCaulsin explains.

While there are numerous gadgets available to trick out your new living space, including blackout RV roller shades to ensure complete darkness for sleeping, outfitting your rig with the right mattress should be at the very top of your list.

“Rest is critical to your well-being and health,” says Megan Anderson, product marketing manager at Mattress Firm. “Your body deserves a great mattress to help you achieve proper rest and recover from an [adventurous] day, especially if you have a long drive ahead and need to stay alert.”

With all that in mind, here’s what you need to know to ensure your camper van mattress is ready to inspire many nights of slumber under the stars.

The Mattress Must Sync With Your Camper Van Setup

According to McCauslin, choosing the best mattress for your camper van is largely influenced by your specific setup and what will ultimately work best within the vehicle. Before starting your research, it’s essential to ask yourself a few questions that will help decide your ideal design: Will you ever want to move the bed, and if so, how often? When moving it, where does it need to be able to go?

Your answers first help determine what platform your mattress is set on. VanDOit, for example, outfits their rides with platforms that work like folding bunk beds when customers need more daytime living space. For those who don’t need the bed to disappear, a stationary bed system raises and lowers without folding away.

Camper van travellers talk to Mattress Firm Sleep Expert outside of a Mattress Firm store.
At the start of their trip, our travellers stopped at a Mattress Firm store in El Paso, Texas to pick up a mattress.
Photo Credit: Knox Photographics LLC

Once you've chosen the right platform for your needs, you can narrow down your mattress choices. For folding platforms, McCauslin says a folding memory foam mattress gives you the versatility to quickly transform your van into a variety of setups. Stationary bed platforms allow you to choose a more conventional, no-folding at-home setup.

Size Up Your Space

When you’re occupying a small living area, like in a camper van, using every square inch is clutch. Unfortunately, very few vans can perfectly fit a rectangle-shaped mattress, according to McCauslin. This is why many van lifers resort to cutting their beds.

If you find yourself needing a mattress smaller than a standard size, McCauslin suggests choosing a memory foam mattress. Since you’re dealing with the same material throughout, this type of mattress is easy to cut and customize for fit. Use a box cutter to make very short strokes, allowing the foam to separate and reseal before cutting again.

If playing surgeon sounds too permanent, you can simply squish the mattress to fit your spot. That’s exactly what van-lifer Amelia Arvesen and her husband did. The length of Arvesen’s RV bed was 71 inches, and she found a mattress at 74 inches, squishing the extra three inches between the walls. “It actually adds a little bit of extra cushion at our heads, and you can barely tell [the difference],” she says.

Mattress Firm Sleep Experts load a Sleepy's mattress into a camper van.
Our pair opted for a plush, 12-inch-thick queen-size mattress which Mattress Firm Sleep Experts helped load into their van.
Photo Credit: Knox Photographics LLC

Of course, there’s always the option to order custom-sized mattresses, though that can run on the pricy side. Thanks to the rising demand for camper van mattresses, Mattress Firm now offers commonly-needed sizes to make it easier to find the perfect fit without any DIY trimming.

The Three-Quarter, for example, measures 48 by 75 inches, making it smaller than a full but bigger than a twin, Anderson says. It’s commonly used in smaller vans, and most of the time can accommodate two small children. The Short King measures 72 by 75 inches, so it’s about five inches shorter than a regular king mattress and ideally sleeps two adults without taking up too much precious living space.

Consider Your Comfort

Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the value of comfort while living the van life. Arvesen learned this the hard way. “[My husband and I] started with a cheap mattress that was about four inches thick,” she says. “We took one trip and needed more cushion; we could feel the bed slats on our hips when we slept on our sides.”

To avoid achy muscles in the morning, Anderson recommends working off the range of firmness you have in your existing bed (ultra-soft to ultra-firm) and analyzing how well that— and its built-in features—currently work so you can adjust as needed. If you’re consistently getting a great night’s sleep, then mimic it as closely as you can, possibly buying the same mattress, bedding, and pillows you have at home.

Gel memory foam mattress topper on a mattress.
A mattress topper like this one can be a great way to make thin mattresses more comfortable.

If you already bought a mattress, don’t sweat it: Arvesen worked with what she had, simply adding three more inches of memory foam to their existing mattress. “Now it’s more comfortable than our queen mattress in our apartment,” she says.

Make Friends With Memory Foam Mattresses

Yes, there are a variety of mattress types — memory foam, latex, gel, innerspring, hybrid, air — and each construction can produce a different feel and, ultimately, influence your sleep. But, according to McCauslin, memory foam is the best choice for camper vans. Not only can you get folding varieties, but it’s also easy to cut, contours to the shape of the platform, and doesn’t sink in or slide off its platform if the van is on tilted ground.

Plus, there are a ton of varieties within the memory foam category that highlight different features. “There are so many that can be cooling, ultra-conforming, and responsive,” Anderson says. “They can even create foam layers that are soft or firm for that carefully calculated comfort level.”

Invest in Temperature Regulation

It may not be the first thing you consider when mattress shopping, but the temperature in your sleep space is actually one of the most important factors to netting quality rest, according to a study from the National Institutes of Health. Aim for 65°F for solid shut-eye.

Most vans can’t run air conditioning without the engine being turned on, making temperature regulation in your bed that much more important. First, McCauslin says to look for a mattress with moisture-wicking materials on the label, so it won’t hold onto any wetness while the van sits overnight.

A young woman writes in her journal in the back of a camper van.
Temperature regulation is easier during the day when you can leave your camper van doors wide open.
Photo Credit: Knox Photographics LLC

From there, Anderson suggests looking for products with cooling properties. Arvesen used a mattress topper with ventilated gel, though you could also get cooling sheets and pillows to optimize airflow and keep things cool.

You can even take your bed’s platform into consideration. Arvesen opted for slats instead of a full plywood board, providing ventilation from underneath to further prevent any dampness from settling in.