New & Improved

By Gary Forster

First, I’m going to guess that it’s been quite a while since you’ve slept in one of the old camp bunk beds. If you had, they’d be a higher priority.


Second, I’ll bet your bunk beds are a pain in the neck (and back). Worst case, they’re old, metal, army-style cots that sag in the middle, squeak all night, and don’t have safety guardrails. Maybe they’re made of wood, but even then they have four posts on the floor that have to be swept around and scratch the floor when the bed gets moved and left willy-nilly by the guests, and then there’s still that darn squeak.

Let’s Get Started--Get Rid Of The Posts
To start with, let’s get rid of all four posts. That’s right--hang the bed from the ceiling and the walls. Just run a 2-by-3 board at the bed’s corners right up to the ceiling and bolt them to a joist. It is now easy to clean the floors, and the bunk bed looks like a tree house. Add another 2 by 3 with some thick dowels in between, and you have a safe ladder to get up and down from the top bunk. Bolt the backsides of the bunks to the walls, and they’ll be strong enough for an army and won’t squeak a peep. Use a piece of one-half-inch OSB (Oriented Strand Board, the inexpensive and forgiving plywood substitute) as the foundation, and glue and screw it into place.

How Big?
Most standard camp beds are only 30 inches wide. (How wide are you these days?) My suggestion is to go 36 inches wide. More room to roll over, but more important, fitted sheets will fit the mattress. And make the mattress at least 5 inches thick, which is still economical, but much more comfortable.

How Long?
Ever try to sleep on your stomach with no place to put your toes? Make your bunks at least 6 feet 6 inches long. But if your OSB comes 8 feet long, why cut it off? I always use the full length, giving the campers and guests extra space at the head of their bed as a built-in “night stand” for their ditty bag and stuffed animals, and for chaperones, their cell phone and glasses. Really want to do it right? Add a duplex outlet (for a small fan, cell charger, etc.) and a wall-mounted reading light.

The accompanying photos should get you started, but here are a few more details so you can go right to work.

Nice Flourishes
If you’re really on a tight budget, you can do everything out of 2-by framing lumber. But it’s amazing how much nicer it will look, feel, and wear if you spend just a little more time. We use 2 by 3s to make the bed frame, covered with the 37 inches-by-96 inches piece of OSB, glued and screwed down--one for the upper bunk and one for the lower. Why 2 by 3 instead of 2 by 4? It gives one inch more seated headroom to both upper and lower beds, and for the ladder, it just looks more like furniture than a 2 by 4 would. Here’s a nice detail: surround the frame with a piece of 5/4 inch-by-6 inches trim glued and screwed to the face of the 2 by 3. This creates a “boat” that holds the mattress nicely in place and gives a rounded, finished edge to the wood that’s easier on the hands and looks more like real furniture. My first choice is to do it out of oak, but we’ve done well with Southern Yellow pine, too. I’d avoid pine or fir or cedar, as they’re too soft and wear too quickly.

Don’t Forget The Ladder
We make the ladders ahead of time in the shop: one side is the 2 by 3 that runs long to the roof (or through the ceiling) to be bolted to a rafter or jack-bolted across two rafters; the other side of the ladder sticks up high enough to catch the end of the guardrail. The rungs can be either 2 by 3s laid flat like a ship’s ladder between the uprights in a slight dado (notch), or my favorite for looks and ease, 1 ½-inch closet rod glued-in holes drilled two-thirdss of the way through. It feels solid in a camper’s hand and round under foot.

The bed “boats” are lag-screwed directly to the walls while being temporarily braced on the outside by “story-poles” (2 by 4s with cleats at the right heights to hold the “boats” up with jiffy-clamps). The ladder then looks for a ceiling or roof joist to be carriage-bolted to when it’s cut to length. Then it’s bolted to each of the bed frames. Counter-sink the nuts on the inside so the mattress doesn’t get ripped. Some people place the lower bunk so the top of the mattress is 18 inches off the floor; it’s more comfortable to sit on. I suggest a little higher so standard Rubbermaid footlockers will slide underneath. The “headroom” distance between the top of the lower bed frame and the bottom of the upper bed frame is typically 35 inches in store-bought beds. Adjust that depending on how much headroom you have for the guy/gal in the upper bunk.

The Guardrail
The final step is to add a guardrail from the short ladder upright to the wall (or end of the bunk). The important dimension here is the distance between the top edge of the bed frame (5/4 inch by 6 inches if you used my surfacing suggestion) and the bottom of the identical 5/4-inch-by-6 inches guardrail. By code it can’t be more than 4 inches. That’s so a young child’s head can’t fit through the gap. The top of the guardrail must be at least 5 inches above the top of the mattress when installed. You can check your dimensions against the federal standards at

If your bunk beds stick out into the room, you’ll need an additional 2-by-3 support hung from the ceiling, and additional guardrails, too. But I discourage you from sticking the beds into the room “barracks style.” Kids feel much safer having a wall on one side so they can’t be “snuck up on.” More important, it frees up a lot of floor space for sitting or playing in the middle of the room. Windows? Just put guardrails in front of them. If you’re designing a new cabin, have separate slider windows (sideways) for the top and bottom bunks. Not enough wall space? If you’re going to stick a bunk out into the room, why not do it twice and put them back-to-back (see photo). By putting sheets of plywood in between, you save all the extra space between beds, again creating much-needed floor space.

Finally, if you’re smart, you’ll do all the finishing on the beds before you bring them to the cabin. That includes giving them a coat of a golden-oak urethane stain (nothing too dark so it doesn’t show when it starts to wear). Another trick is to paint both sides of the OSB with dark-brown porch paint. For the bottom side, it prevents graffiti because what camper will write his or her name if no one will see it? For the topside, it prevents mildew and stains from a “liquid accident.” (Back when I was a counselor, we called them “Midnight Sailors!”)

Gary Forster recently retired from a full career in organized camping. He still speaks at conferences and volunteers. Reach him at