How To Layer A Perfectly Comfortable Dorm Bed

April 22, 2022

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Layers of a dorm bed

Congratulations! You or your child are off to college soon, and now you’re wondering how to turn that bare, probably previously used, dorm mattress into a wonderfully comfortable dorm bed to get them through this first important year of college.

We’ve got the list below and some helpful graphics to help guide you on how to make a dorm bed. When you start shopping, you’ll see that there are SO many options out there and so few consistent reviews. We’ve weeded through that for you and included our own experience as well as the input of many students as they finish up their freshman year in college.

Before you get started with dorm bed shopping, be sure you have your dorm assignment and know your exact bed size. Twin XL is the most common, but please double-check!

Compare Standard Mattress Sizes

Once you have the size, you will want to chat with your roommate about decor if you will be sharing a room. My son and his roommate chose not to match but to stick with neutrals for their comforters.

Why is all of this important? On the day you arrive to move into your dorm, your bed will likely look something like the picture below. So, let’s turn that into a fabulously comfortable dorm bed. Because college life is new, classes are hard and good sleep is critical.

THE UNSEEN BUT ESSENTIAL LAYERS OF A DORM BED

How to make a dorm bed? Let’s build the foundation first. Most students heading to freshman dorms prefer the following for their bedding layers:

Mattress Encasement/Protector – this is absolutely optional but something that a lot of families choose to do because dorm mattresses are typically previously used. This waterproof, zippered enclosure serves as a barrier as well as a layer of bed bug protection. You’re kind of zipping away the prior history of the mattress if you will. But even still, can’t hurt to run a few Clorox wipes around the mattress before you zip it away, right? This is just one of a few tips in How To Prepare And Pack For College Move In Day.

The encasement linked above comes in 6″, 9″ and 12″ depth. For most dorm mattresses, you’ll want to use the 9″ depth unless you know for sure your mattress is 6″. This is the 9″ Twin XL encasement.

Mattress Topper – this layer will help you forget about that mattress. And therefore, don’t skip it or skimp on it. Most dorm mattresses are 7-8″ thick. The mattresses you and your family sleep on at home are probably 12″ or deeper. To really make the flimsy dorm mattress more comfortable, you need to add a good bit of foam cushioning. I’d recommend a 3″-4″ mattress topper for your dorm bed.

You have a few mattress topper options to consider:

  • Memory foam – almost all toppers these days are memory foam. Memory foam is soft and comfortable yet firm, and it ships in smaller packages making these toppers easier to move. But note that all memory foam products must be opened and allowed to ‘rise’ and air out before use. Typically memory foam toppers say to air out for 48-hours, but if you can give it the day of move-in, it should be fine.
  • Gel-infused memory foam – the inclusion of gel helps with body temperature regulation.
  • Scent-infused such as lavender or charcoal – these are personal preferences, but I would be cautious here with potential allergy triggers for roommates.
  • Made in the USA, certified CertiPUR-US – these are important considerations, and quite honestly, it is hard to find.

After extensively researching mattress toppers everywhere, we decided on this 3″ gel memory foam Sure2Sleep brand, made in the USA. It has made it through freshman year perfectly. If you’re perusing social media, you’ll see many discussions about the Lucid mattress toppers for dorm beds, but I didn’t find them as highly rated. I read so many reviews, my head was spinning!

Layers of a dorm bed
How To Make A Dorm Bed

Mattress Pad – the mattress pad is here to hold everything together and protect your new mattress topper. You may want a deep pocket mattress pad after adding 3-4″ to the provided mattress. If you can confirm that the dorm-provided mattress is only 8″, you’d actually be fine with regular fitted sheets and not need the deep pocket.

Mattress Pad/Sheet Straps – with all of these layers, you don’t want things moving around. If the elastic around the mattress pad doesn’t keep things in place, you can add mattress pad straps to the corners. They could also be used to keep sheets in place, but they are admittedly hard to put on every time the sheets are changed. But wait, how often will that be?

Sheets FOR DORM ROOM BEDS

And that leads us to our next bedding item, sheets. The fitted sheet, top sheet and pillowcases. You definitely need to get the exact size sheets to fit the provided mattress.

But don’t just run out and buy any old Twin XL sheet sets. According to my son, who goes to college in Georgia, the dorm is always warm. He heard that from kids who had lived there previously. So between that little bit of intel and me dealing with hot flashes and night sweats, I’ve done a lot of research on sheet material and weaves lately. Priorities.

Without turning this into an article on types of sheets, let’s start with what fabrics to avoid:

Skip right past silk, satin and linen sheets. For price, care and durability purposes, none of these make sense for a college dorm.

Also avoid polyester as it is absorbent and stains easily. Microfiber is often touted as a dorm sheet, but beware, it is typically polyester, and the sheet sets that are $15 online are super thin and tear easily. Microfiber may also have man-made elements including recycled plastics. And they don’t breathe well.

The best types of sheets for a college dorm are cotton or tencel. Bamboo is another option, but it is often pricier and can require more care when washing and drying.

Ok, of these 3, which type of sheet is best for a dorm bed? Well that depends on your soon to be college student and their preferences. For my son, it was coolness, so we went with a Pima cotton. Also note that thread count is only utilized for cotton products. And it can be misleading as higher quality threads at a lower thread count can produce a higher quality product.

  • Softness: Tencel or Cotton (especially Pima or Egyptian) will be the softest.
  • Temperature: Cotton and Bamboo are the coolest, Tencel runs the warmest.
  • Environmentally Friendly: Tencel or Bamboo.
  • Hypoallergenic: Bamboo.
  • Antimicrobial: Tencel.
  • Stain-Resistant: Cotton.

Now let’s talk weaves. The 3 most popular are Percale, Sateen and Twill. I used to think these were fabrics just like cotton and polyester. Nope.

  • Percale is a simple weave that keeps sheets cooler. They are more crisp, like hotel sheets, but wrinkle easily.
  • Sateen is woven from yarn vs fibers which makes them silkier. While they aren’t percale cooling-wise, they are still cool but less durable than percale.
  • Twill is typically the most affordable and due to the tighter weave, they are more wrinkle-resistant. However, they can be prone to shrink.

Here’s the thing. Sheets go out of stock regularly. Especially in Twin XL. I can’t in good conscience give you links here because honestly, sheet reviews are all over the place. If you want a soft buttery sheet that keeps you warm, but you order a crisp, light percale, you’re not going to like it. And the reviews show this.

The sheets we bought for my son are no longer in stock anywhere, so without some personal experience or consistent fabulous reviews, I can’t provide a specific recommendation. So with what you’ve read above about sheet fabrics and weaves, talk it over with your dorm-bound kiddo, and maybe do some in-store shopping where you can actually feel what’s inside the package.

How many sets of sheets do you need for a dorm room? We sent him with 2. I won’t go into the detail of how often they get washed, but at least having 2 gives him the option of quickly putting on clean sheets when his parents (or really, girlfriend) come by to visit.

And if you’re wondering what I selected to deal with my hormonal night flashes, I went with a percale Egyptian cotton from Brooklinen. And new sheets really have made a big difference! They are pricier and wrinkle easily, but uninterrupted sleep was the higher priority. I thought my hubby wouldn’t like them, but he is also enjoying lighter, more breathable sheets as well. Manopause much?

PILLOWS

My children are pillow hounds. They come by it honestly in a gene direct from their father. I’m SOL when we go to a hotel room. They all want ALL the pillows. And the kids typically each stuff a memory foam pillow into their suitcase. No joke. They’d rather have that than more clothes or shoes. What IS wrong with them?!

But this is another item that is all about personal preference and must be selected by the student. Online reviews will make your head spin. People don’t know what they like, they complain about what they order/receive, and it’s like Goldie Locks has written every single review.

Don’t miss our ideas for things to leave under their pillow (secretly) on move in day.

Just let me throw this out there. Twin XL beds are the same width as Twins. And this width is exactly half the width of a King bed. So why are we buying standard-sized pillows for twin beds? My boys don’t live by that rule, and it is King-sized pillows all around. Just something to consider if your student wants a pillow that covers the entire head of the bed.

How many pillows? Another personal preference. But if the bed will also be used as a sofa/seating area, you might consider additional bed pillows, throw pillows or even these pillows that make beds more like a day bed. Keep in mind that a Twin XL bed is 80″ long. If you do opt for one of these long day bed pillows to cover most of the length of the bed during the day, consider a King (76″ long), a California King (71″) or a Queen (59″).

COMFORTERS, QUILTS, AND THROW BLANKETS

If you already know your roommate, you’ll definitely want to discuss bedding and determine if you want to match exactly, coordinate, or just do your thing. ANY of those options are fine.

And then you can decide what the top layer will be. A comforter, a duvet with a cover, or a quilt. Again, this comes down to personal preference. But do keep in mind that it will be easier to launder a duvet cover or a quilt than a comforter, just in terms of size. My son has brought home his Twin XL UGG comforter a few times, and we’ve managed to make it work. We end up finishing the drying cycle by hanging it somewhere to finish though. It gets too bunched up in the dryer to get all the way dry.

Whichever type you decide, be sure it is machine washable. This top layer is the bed, the couch (unless you have a full loft), the dining table and the snack bar all in one. After one school year in the dorm, it may very well become dog bedding, so think twice about over-investing in this layer.

Here are a few highly recommended, yet affordable, top layers that frequent dorm rooms.

UGG Avery – this is what my son has in his dorm, it is pictured below under Headboards. Bed, Bath and Beyond must have exclusive rights to sell this one at this low price.

Soft on one side/sherpa on the other – Similarly priced to the UGG version but with more colors and patterns, this one is a basic, warm, not too hot comforter. Good for a neutral room.

Pinch pleat comforter – these are more feminine and look nice if matching your bedding. You can do your own thing with a few throw pillows, or match those as well. The one linked here is a close knock off to a Pottery Barn version.

Pretty blush Boho ruffled duvet cover and shams – a helpful zipper enclosure. Don’t forget to get the duvet itself!

Simple waffle stitched quilt – simple, soft and warm. No frills, just a classic look.

Throw blanket – because late nights happen and late nights often lead to a good daytime nap, and a cozy blanket is a must for a good nap. My son actually uses his as an extra layer on his bed on really cold nights (see the plaid one in the pic of his room below). If you haven’t seen a 4.9 rating on Amazon before, check out this blanket!

HEADBOARDS AND BACKRESTS

Most dorms provide a bed frame with a mattress, but there really isn’t a headboard. In many cases, the head of the beds will be up against the wall. Often a concrete block wall. So even if you go for the king-size pillow, or maybe 2, you’re still up against a wall. But don’t worry, some entrepreneurial individuals have come up with some solutions.

Note, if you will have a Twin XL bed in your dorm room, you need a Twin headboard. The 38″ width is the same for a Twin or Twin XL.

An actual headboard – you can buy an actual twin headboard for your dorm bed and use zip ties to attach it to the posts. I would only recommend this if the head of the bed is up against a wall utilizing the wall AND the zip ties to keep it in place.

Flat pillow “headboard” – we bought this flat ‘headboard pillow’ for my son – you can see it in the picture below. This has worked well for him, it is thick, and you can wash the cover. I had him bring home the cover over winter break, washed it, and it went back on fine.

Large triangular wedge pillow – these are more expensive than the flat pillow above, but this would be more comfortable to regularly lean against vs just serving as a barrier to the wall. This one is the most highly rated and has a removable washable cover. This is the same suggestion as the day bed pillow above, but in that case, it was to run the length of the bed. This Twin sized one would be used as a headboard.

Husband pillow – these are the modern memory-foam version of the old school Brady Bunch era backrest pillows with arms. This one comes in many colors, the XL size seems to be the same price as the Medium, and it has a removable washable cover. A lot of the other options available say spot clean only. I would choose with a washable cover!

DIY Headboard – there are many options for DIY headboards as well. You could wrap a large piece of foam core with fabric and use velcro and command strips to stick to the wall. Or consider many other easy and inexpensive DIY options. Pinterest is full of ideas.

DORM BED SKIRTS/DORM BED CURTAINS

A standard bed skirt drop is between 14″ and 18″. But in a dorm room, it can absolutely vary. Many dorm bed frames are adjustable, so you can take the bed from standard height off the floor to a raised height.

Since storage is at a premium, under-bed storage will be necessary. If you want to ‘cover’ that area, a bed skirt is a great choice.

The problem with purchasing a bed skirt before move-in is knowing what height you will set the bed, and how much space you’ll need to cover below. The good news is that some of the options below are adjustable.

If you can somehow find out how high the beds are/can be ahead of time, perhaps from a Facebook group for parents of students at your future college, that would be great. Those groups are an AMAZING resource for all kinds of helpful information, including what you’ll need for your specific dorm room.

Here are some dorm bed skirt/curtain options if you do find the distance prior to move-in.

22″ Drop Bed Skirt – comes in many colors. Choose the Twin/Full size for Twin XL.

42″ Drop Bed Skirt – this one is 42″ long and has slits along the length of the bed making it easier to access specific parts the below-bed storage area without raising the entire skirt.

32″ to 60″ Options – looking for more color options? You can choose the drop lengths of 32, 36, 42, 46, 50, 54, 56 and 60 inches.

60″ Adjustable Bed Skirt – if you have a fully lofted bed, this 3 panel set will cover 60″ below the bed, and it can also be adjusted for shorter distances by tying the ties further into the middle of the bed (on the bed springs). This is a great option if you know your bed will be high, but you’re unsure of just how high.

COMFORTING DORM BED EXTRAS

Adjusting to college isn’t easy. Where you can, it is nice to include some comfort items. If they have a favorite throw blanket at home, let them take it with them.

Have you seen the pillows made from a picture of your pets?

How about a weighted blanket? Rule of thumb for these is that it should be about 10% of the person’s body weight.

Fuzzy throw pillows? These come in many colors. Be sure to get the pillow inserts in the coordinating size too.

Also, if your dorm bed is raised, don’t forget a footstool! In the picture of my son’s dorm room above, you can see the footstool near the foot (of course) of the bed. With his bed raised to that height, it is just slightly too high to easily get onto, so he can either jump, or use the footstool. He also uses the footstool to reach the top shelf in his closet. Where he keeps that spare, rarely used, set of sheets. 🙂

MORE DORM ROOM PLANNING

Our Facebook Group:

Now that you have the bedding planned and even ordered, there is a lot more to consider for the dorm room. To join the dorm planning conversation and be notified when highly sought dorm items go on sale, please join the Facebook group Dorm Shopping Recommendations and Deal Alerts.

Our Other Helpful Articles:

Our Amazon Dorm Shopping List:

We’ve compiled all of our Amazon recommendations from our many dorm planning articles into one list. Click here for our complete list of highly-rated dorm must-haves on Amazon.

More From Positively Squared Away

We will be publishing more helpful dorm prep and surviving college articles in the weeks and months ahead. To be notified when new articles drop, please follow us on our Positively Squared Away Facebook page, or subscribe to our email list.

Also please take a minute to read about the importance of a Young Adult Power Of Attorney before they leave for college. So many parents are unaware of how the US privacy laws impact our ability to help our kids once they are legal adults.

You may also want to check out our most read, shared and clicked article of all time and bookmark it for a few months from now. It will be updated for the 2022 season, but wow, did it get some serious accolades during last year’s holiday shopping season.

Important Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, a lawyer or a financial advisor. Please use this content as informational only and as only one input as you consider what options are best for you and your family. This is not professional advice.

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