Living on a boat is very different than living on land. Finding room for all your stuff is just one major hurdle to overcome. While there are many boat storage compartment ideas floating around, I’ve found that not many stand the test of time.
There’s an art to living on a boat; science alone will not do. You must get to know your vessel and get to know yourself. What do you need to live comfortably? It’s not unlike other types of living smaller—be it in an RV or a tiny house. But boats move, so your stuff needs to be secure, too.
Here are eight boat storage ideas and tips that you can implement. Along the way, I’ll share some things I’ve learned over the course of our live-aboard lives about what works and what doesn’t.
Table of Contents
- 8 Tips and Ideas for Maximizing Boat Storage Space
- Try Your Own Boat Storage Compartment Ideas, But Stay Organized
- Boat Storage FAQs
8 Tips and Ideas for Maximizing Boat Storage Space
Before we dive into the tools of the trade, let’s look a little at the art of storage space on a boat. Living on a boat requires you to do two things: downsize and carefully organize your stuff.
#1 Downsize (And Then Downsize Again!)
When living on a boat, you can’t store things you don’t need. Everything onboard needs to earn its place. Everything, to the extent possible, should be useful, and (ideally) everything should be a multitasker.
But this is so much easier to say than it is to do! No matter how long I’ve been cruising, I struggle with having too much stuff on board. Every day, I reevaluate something that I use too little or that takes up too much space.
During our years living on a sailboat, we progressively downsized. We sold our two-bedroom home and moved to a one-bedroom apartment. Then, we bought a 38-foot catamaran and later a 38-foot monohull sailboat. Each of these steps was a huge reduction in space and size, each step another phase of the downsizing. Even still, we tended to take our stuff and pile it onboard, figuring we’d sort it out later.
But I think this has been the wrong approach because we’ve always felt like we had too much stuff. I often think it would’ve been wiser to move only what we needed onto the boat little by little. That way, every item earns its place onboard.
With all this talk about tossing stuff out, it’s easy to get carried away. While we don’t keep many sentimental or ornamental objects on board, we have a few things that simply make us happy. That’s a practical use for an object, isn’t it?
# 2 Shape of Boat Locker = Shape of Your Stuff
Unlike the practical square closets in a house, lockers are built in the otherwise dead space between a boat’s furniture and its hull. They’re often tapered, with more space at the top than the bottom. Some are shaped like wedges under your sofa. Some compartments might seem a huge empty space at first, like the storage spaces under your bed, but are less useful when you find water tanks or batteries filling them up.
You’ll have a few big hanging lockers and maybe some compartments under the floor that are bigger and square. These are prime storage real estate because they’ll store items that won’t fit anywhere else. Other prime areas are lockers that have easy access. Don’t put something you use every day in the cabinet space under the bed!
Organizing the boat becomes less of an “I need to put this in my bedroom” exercise and more of a “Where will this fit?” problem. You can’t put a square peg in a round hull and all that.
One thing that helps is to make everything as packable and flexible as possible. We get rid of all cardboard boxes and as much packaging as we can. For example, if you take a box of cereal out of the box, you’ll be amazed at the places the plastic bag will fit. (We have been told that cardboard can bring bugs on board. We haven’t had that problem, but it can get soggy and provide moisture for mold and mildew.)
Finally, you must keep an eye on balancing the boat! Small sailboats have the best storage space in the back, but if you load all your stuff back there, your stern will sink, and the bow will rise. It will reduce your performance, not to mention mess up your waterline. And no matter how large, liveaboard catamaran owners must keep an eye out to ensure they are not overloaded.
# 3 Plastic Bags Instead of Boxes
We made the mistake of buying nice OXO resealable plastic storage bins for loose items. We thought, if we’re getting rid of the boxes, we should have jars and containers to put it in. But these jars and containers proved to be a huge problem because they often only fit in one place. Plus, what happens when the jar is full? You wind up with a jar AND a bag of whatever the stuff is.
I love the look of having a matching set of storage containers, especially for things like flour, cereal, and pasta, but it didn’t work for us. Now, we have all these things stored in ziplock bags.
Ziplock bags are cheap, and you can get them everywhere. I often use one repeatedly, like the one that holds macaroni. I use it until it falls apart, then I replace it. You can buy large two-gallon zip locks that can even be used to store some small clothing items.
The same problem with the OXO containers has occurred with other things. We thought having nice plastic storage containers on shelves would be helpful, but in the end, they always prove impractical. It’s impossible to find containers that are precisely the right size without wasting precious space. Flexible bins are best if you can find one that fits just right. Then, when we find a perfect fabric container, it turns out to attract mold and mildew like a magnet!
We’ve used vacuum-sealed space bags in the past, and they are very helpful when they work. They’re great for compressing out-of-season clothes and getting more storage space. However, they’re built poorly (even the heavy-duty ones), and we always tear them. Most of ours don’t hold their seal anymore. Stuffing them in and out of boat lockers kills them.
Keeping all the slippery ziplock bags organized is not any fun. I now keep the filled zip locks in reusable shopping bags inside my pantry locker.
These bags are useful everywhere on our boat. They last forever; they’re inexpensive, easy to clean, and stuffable. I prefer the heavy canvas bags for actual shopping, but for storage on the boat, the woven plastic ones are much easier to keep clean. My favorite totes come from Aldi or Trader Joe’s. We keep sewing supplies, dog toys and treats, firewood for our wood burner, and many provisions organized with these bags.
And then there are the ultimate reusable shopping bags, the giant blue IKEA bags. We have a few of these, and while they aren’t used for everyday storage (they’re too big), they are very helpful when it’s laundry day or when we need to carry a bunch of other bags after a shopping run.
#4 Buckets and Storage Bins
It’s not sexy, but the five-gallon bucket is one of my newest and favorite items on board. Previously, I had thought that regular buckets were too bulky. I opted instead for collapsable buckets and Tub Trugs, a type of flexible bucket that takes up a little less space. I still like those, but they tend to crack and take up a lot of space.
My favorite five-gallon bucket is a bright orange Home Depot Homer Bucket with a lid. Inside, I have stored all my painting and varnish supplies. These are always a problem, as many are metal cans that rust. Putting them inside the sealed bucket ensures that any mess is contained.
I’ve added a canvas tool caddy, which you can get at most hardware stores. Now, my sandpaper, brushes, and varnishing tools are all in one place.
The best part is that the bucket itself is a multitasker. I stood on it when I needed a step stool and sat on it while sanding. I have used it as a workbench when I needed to saw something. It’s crazy useful no matter where you are, be it on the dock, on a sailboat, or on a pontoon boat.
I could see another bucket dedicated to fishing gear instead of tackle boxes. The top could double as a fillet table with rod holders on the side. Or another one that was your grab-and-go toolbox. You can find a few great bucket storage solutions online, like these bucket caddies that help you organize the inside of the bucket.
The problem with the bucket system is the space that the bucket takes up. Since we always use buckets for washing the boat and even laundry, it makes sense to have them on board and use them in multiple ways. But they are large, and they only fit in one cockpit lazarette on our boat.
Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of other plastic bins and containers to store gear. But I’ve found very few that actually work and stand the test of time. The biggest problem is that they are the wrong shape and size to fit in and out of any locker easily.
If you have space, I like the DeWalt TSTAK system of tool caddies and the PRO organizers. They are extremely sturdy and have held up well. These are great if you have a workshop or equipment room onboard.
#5 Hang Stuff Up with Hooks, Cargo Nets, or Hanging Baskets
Hanging stuff is a great solution for a few items. The key is to think about the boat’s movement and ensure that things aren’t flying around. This could be hazardous, but more likely, it will just produce an annoying thump-thump-thump that keeps you awake all night.
We’ve had great luck with hooks, both screw-in brass cup hooks and Command hooks attached with removable tape. Command hooks are great for little items like pot holders and kitchen towels.
Screw-in hooks are great for bigger items, like these two skillets that are secured with a bungee so they don’t rattle. We also have our coffee mugs hanging on them.
Another hanging solution that adds a fun nautical flair is the cargo net. We have a simple banana hammock for our onions, apples, and bananas. It’s not very large, but it fits perfectly over the galley counter.
We also used a hanging basket for fruit on the catamaran for a while.
Other folks buy bigger nets and place them along walls where they can store clothing, towels, or other loose items. Unfortunately, our current boat doesn’t have enough wall space to pull this idea off.
Custom pockets are another handy item. We created this simple pocket with fabric scraps left over from other projects. It’s hung with brass cup hooks.
If you have a hardtop or a sturdy bimini, you might consider adding bungee cords to the underside. That will allow you to store your life jackets up above you, keeping them out of the way but easily accessible.
For cords, these Camco cord storage straps are winning. There’s nothing worse than having to wrangle your shore power cord and water hose out of a messy compartment. You can hang your cords and grab them easily with this handy tool.
#6 Hanging Organizers
Every boat has at least one hanging locker. It’s often the largest storage space on a boat’s interior, but using it as designed often makes the least sense. They’re small, so you can’t hang your whole wardrobe like you would at home.
The space is often better utilized with shelves or a draw system. We’ve used the fabric hanging closet organizer in several different ways over the years. They’re usually too big for a boat locker, so we cut them down to fit.
Another handy tool is a hanging shoe organizer, which can hold anything in its multiple pockets. Mount it on the back wall of a hanging locker, and you’ve got a place to store all your little things like bathing suits.
After playing with these ideas, we built some simple plywood shelves in the forward half of our hanging locker. They aren’t fancy. They only took about $20 at the hardware store and an afternoon of cutting to make. But they use the space much better since this half of the closet was too narrow to hang anything.
#7 Upgrade to Boat or RV Space Savers
Some things from home just take up too much space. I have found that my biggest problems are in the kitchen. There are small, space-saving solutions to many problems, however. If you use it constantly, it might be worth upgrading your stuff to better suit your space.
Nesting pots and pans are the perfect example. I’ve used this set of Magma stainless pots since we first moved aboard the catamaran. They’ve been dropped and banged around and still work fine. But as much as I love them, I don’t use all of them. That makes me think I might upgrade to an even smaller set with only what I need.
Another example is a magnetic spice rack like this. I love this system’s look and convenience—I have many spices on board. Adding one could free up an entire drawer or cabinet that individual bottles would otherwise take up.
#8 Get Creative!
One storage problem we’ve had is where to keep our spare bedding, especially extra blankets and winter duvets. We have previously used the space bags, but they fell apart—and we needed the space for clothes, anyway.
We’ve always kept some throw pillows around, mostly for use on the couch when watching movies. One day, we put two and two together—storage pillows. Lucy sewed some large rectangular pillowcases with big zippers using handprinted fabrics from The Bahamas. The pillows are a little firm but hold our spare sheets and comforters.
Try Your Own Boat Storage Compartment Ideas, But Stay Organized
The final thing I struggle with is staying organized. I often get an idea and move something, rearranging what is in which compartment. It drives Lucy mad. Honestly, I can’t keep track after a while myself.
I know some boaters who are very organized. They keep a spreadsheet of which compartment has which items. When they need something, they first consult the spreadsheet. I love spreadsheets, so this approach has always appealed to me—even though I’ve yet to implement it.
Everyone will have a slightly different set of solutions that works for them. It depends on the boat, it depends on the boater, and it even depends on where they’re going. For a weekend warrior keeping the boat as a vacation house, it can be pretty simple. But when living on a boat full time, it is a constant battle we wage every day.
Boat Storage FAQs
How do you build storage on a boat?
Building storage on a boat entirely depends on the boat and what items you’re trying to store. For the most part, adding storage to interior cabinetry is simple woodworking. Exterior storage areas are harder to add since whatever you build must stand up to the elements.
How do you maximize storage on a boat?
Maximizing storage on a boat requires looking at the shape and size of each locker. With such limited space, you may find that some items only have enough room to fit in one place. From there, you can carefully find items that fit in each place. Make items packable and small by removing boxes and packaging and storing them in flexible containers.