Dear Umbra,

We live in a small house, and when we have guests, the bed situation is limiting. Convenience tells me that an inflatable bed would be ideal. However, the “no vinyl, that’s final” rule reigns supreme in our household. What sort of options can you suggest for a sleeping surface that is easy to store, environmentally responsible, and comfy?

Huntington Beach, Calif.

Dearest Angie,

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The night I spent on an air mattress ranks high in the Bad Sleep Hall of Fame. It felt like sleeping on a giant egg carton, so I let some air out. Then it was too soft. My shoulder hit the floor when I lay on my side, and if either my sleeping companion or I so much as twitched, the whole tormentatious bed would undulate for a minute or two. Don’t put your guests in this situation. Unless you wish them to go and ne’er return.

Don’t let your guests down.

I can suggest a few alternatives to the evil, uncomfortable, cheap air mattress. It’s possible to buy a good, comfortable air mattress made of rubber or latex. These not only avoid PVC but are also sturdier and more durable than their vinyl cousins. Or so I’ve read. Trouble is, you can’t figure out which ones are actually comfortable without testing them out; you’ll have to look around for reviews on the web, or just guess and be ready to ship it back if necessary.

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A plain old piece of solid foam or latex might also work. In fact, I currently have a single foam mattress kicking around that I use for this purpose. It’s incredibly lightweight. Your local foam store or an online supplier will happily sell you a large piece of firm foam — unfortunately it is likely to be impregnated with fire retardant and health retardant polybrominated diphenyl ethers (like mine, which is a hand-me-down). IKEA, which is PBDE-free, sells foam and latex mattresses; some of the foam ones could be rolled up and left in the closet, and they aren’t too expensive. If you don’t have access to IKEA, look about on the web for latex mattresses. A latex (or foam) pad might be too hard and/or thin for some guests, so you could store a feather bed for use atop.

My favorite idea is a traditional Japanese futon, the shikibuton. I confess up front that I have ne’er set eyes on an actual shikibuton, much less slept on one, just seen them in Japanese movies. That said, they look ideal for guest bed purposes. The futon itself is a thin, foldable, lightweight cotton mattress, stored folded in an S shape. Essentially it’s a thinner, lighter futon than the American style. To me this seems ideal: it avoids the danger of inflatable discomfort, stores easily, can be placed in any part of the house, and can be hung off the balcony to air, and it looks super nesty. Sure, it’s thin. But so are your other choices.

I did look around a bit on the ‘net for guest bed-cum-furniture, which you didn’t mention as a possibility. I simply remind us all of the utilitarian sofa beds, futon sofas — which are even available in organic cotton — and daybeds. I have to mention one item I found through Treehugger: an incredible coffee table that unpacks to make a single bed. Wow.

As to all these various mattress materials I’ve mentioned, they each have their benefits and drawbacks, but every one of them is better than vinyl. Find the one that works with your house, and don’t forget to inquire as to your guests’ comfort. Pick a blunt yet kind friend who will tell the truth.