Quintessential dorm room dilemmas and the 16 essentials you need to survive them

From storage to communal showers, here are the problems and solutions.

From storage to communal showers, here are the problems and solutions

Gearing up to move into student housing is an exciting milestone, but it can also be a stressful time, fraught with plenty of important questions, like what should I bring with me? Fact: dorm living is highly different from living under your parents' roof — for better and for worse. Whether you're the student or the parent who's doing the shopping and organizing for the big send-off, read on for a list of helpful items based on the all-too-real struggles that come with dwelling in resident halls. 

The problem: Communal bathrooms

From less-than-stellar floormates to that RA who lives to write people up, on-campus housing isn't always the easiest. One of the weirdest and most common challenges for new residents is mentally preparing to share the same bathroom with over thirty strangers. Between the random clumps of hair that always seem to find their way onto the shower floor to the long walks back to one's room, it takes some getting used to. When having to use a group bathroom, there are three key items beyond a towel you should never leave your room without. 


Avoid making daily walks to the shower a juggling act. A handy-dandy shower caddy is the easiest way to organize and schlep around your toiletries and other essentials. When searching for the perfect one, look for a durable material that's also easy to clean (regularly). We recommend this design for its multiple compartments for storing your goods, plus it has two detachable sections for those mornings where you don't need to carry everything. 

2-in-1 Shower Caddy, $12.99, Bed Bath & Beyond

A bathrobe, especially a convenient one with pockets, tied tightly around your waist instead of a regular wrapped towel will better protect you from any potential mishaps when darting back and forth through the halls. Not to mention it'll keep you way more warm and comfy when you end up having to wait for an available shower stall or for the water to heat up. 

H&M Waffle Bathrobe, $39.99, H&M

Beware of athlete's foot and other nasties. Shoes in the shower might feel weird, but a good pair is a must-wear for shielding your feet from infections when stepping into the same showers as dozens of other people — no matter how recently the bathrooms may have been cleaned. 

Nike Benassi Sandal, $30 (women's) $38 (men's), Nike

Problem: Eating when you want to 

Yes, there's a cafeteria right downstairs with pre-made food for you, and you're already paying for a meal plan, but what about all those late nights when you get munchies, or are in dire need of a boost while cramming for an exam and all of the dining halls and off-campus cafés are closed?


Having a great mini fridge in your dorm room for storing snacks and drinks is a total game changer. Not only does this 4 L compact fridge by Chefman have a removable shelf for tall storage, but it also goes from cooling to heating (up to 140°F) with a simple flip of a switch. That means you can easily keep a stash of drinks, fruits, veggies and hummus cool, or your dinner leftovers steamy and at the ready until your next bite.  

Chefman Mini Portable Fridge, $51.32, Amazon

Being able to make your own fresh pot of coffee in your dorm room, whether super early in the morning or late at night, can make all the difference. There's also the chance that the coffee downstairs in the dining hall just plain sucks. If you don't want to worry about buying paper filters all the time or purchasing pricey single-serve coffee pods, consider getting a French press. 

French Press, $9.99, Ikea

An electric kettle is the easiest way to boil water in a dorm room for your coffee, tea or instant noodles bowls. 

Master Chef Stainless Steel Kettle, $39.99, Canadian Tire

The problem: Dull overhead lighting 

Window or not, you'll be relying on artificial light quite a bit, which can really influence the mood and feeling of a space. Single overhead lighting is prevalent in dorm rooms but that standard-issue glow can be rather cold and downright depressing at times. 


Whether strung along a wall or down your curtains, like these cascading twinklers, the string lights trend is still going strong because it's a great way to turn your tiny living quarters into a welcoming and relaxing sanctuary after a long day of classes, a gruelling exam, or for setting the mood when hosting in your teeny abode.

Merkury Innovations Cascading LED Curtain Lights,  $14.98, Walmart

Problem: Sanitation is never a given 

There aren't any cleaning services in residence, and when living on your own for the first time in a dorm room, you'll quickly realize that your tedious cleaning chores back home were more than character-building. As clean as you try to be, that tiny space can inevitably get a lot dirtier than expected, and quickly. 


Your dorm room will need a thorough vacuum from time to time. Your floor or resident desk may have a more heavy-duty one for check out, but having your own mini vacuum on hand will save you that borrowing hassle, allowing you to clean your room more quickly, frequently and effectively. This 3-in-1 vacuum alternates between a hand and stick cleaner, making it perfect for your floors, a swipe over your desk and tops of the curtains, or for all those crumbs when you've been snacking in bed. 

Bissell 3-in-1 Lightweight Stick Vacuum, $21.88, Walmart

Yes, dorm rooms are typically cleaned after occupancy, but a common concern when reaching a new room is it not knowing your mattress predecessor, or what they might have done to your new bed. Invest in a good mattress protector as a hygienic barrier (this one is waterproof and stain resistant), and you'll be sure to rest a whole lot easier.

dreamSERENE Smooth Sleep Twin Mattress Protector, $29, Walmart

Problem: You can't control the temperature

Is your dorm's thermostat completely out of your control, leaving you playing the too hot, too cold dance? 


Dorm dwelling can easily get hot, stuffy and filled with stagnant air during the warmer months. Having a smaller desk fan around will help you keep cool and keep the air and circulating. Sleek and quiet, these colourful personal fans easily fold down for concealment when not in use.  

Vornado Personal Fan, $24.99 - $37.99, Bed Bath & Beyond

On those chilly days, a mini portable space heater is your best bet for that extra shot of warmth. Tiny and simple, this AmazonBasics heater will warm up smaller spaces fast. 

AmazonBasics 500-Watt Small Space Heater, $20.52, Amazon

Problem: No storage 

Whether living in a traditional dorm or suite style, dorm living is notorious for lack of storage, so finding the hidden potential of the limited, school-issued furniture is key.   


The space under your dorm bed is some of the best storage space available. Some dorm room beds are built to be lifted, but if yours doesn't allow that then a good hack is to purchase a set of bed risers. This handy 4-piece set from Studio 3B will help increase your under-the-bed capacity by 7 inches, as well as solve the need for more electrical outlets. One of the lifts doubles as a twin power and USB outlet for charging your handheld devices! 

Studio 3B 4-Piece USB Bed Lift Set, $49.99, Bed Bath & Beyond

Once you've maximized that space underneath your bed, purchasing a couple of long, stackable storage bins (we recommend going for a clear design to easily see your goods) is an excellent way to store everything from off-season clothes to extra food to books. What's more, they can even double as a makeshift table in the middle of your room for when you have company over. 

Type A Under-Bed Container, $13.19, Canadian Tire

Look to your walls, the back of your door, or the inside of your closet or wardrobe cabinet to create more storage space for towels, a bathrobe, coats, scarves, jewelry, and more. Since many dorms don't allow you to put holes in the walls, damage-free Command hooks are lifesavers. Note: the sticky command strips can also be great for hanging posters and pictures. 

Command Medium Clear Hooks, $4.99, Canadian Tire

Problem: Dealing with loud noises and night owls  


Between roommates and party-hard neighbours (be they next door, across the hall, above you, or below you), accept that dorms are going to be disruptive. In addition to earplugs for falling asleep, investing in reliable noise-cancelling headphones can help you channel out excessive and obnoxious sounds when you're trying to do school work or unwind in bed. This sweat-resistant pair from JAM lets you enjoy up to 18 hours of play time on a single charge, plus allows for hands-free calling via Bluetooth connectivity. 

JAM Noise Cancelling Bluetooth Headphones with Mic, $79.99, Best Buy

Problem: Proper travel luggage for weekends away

Backpacks are great for your school gear and all, but they don't quite fit enough for weekend road trips. You also may quickly find out, after moving everything in, that your cramped room isn't set up for you to stash your bulkier wheeled luggage.


Some kind of overnight bag to help you with those regular trips back home or spontaneous outings with friends is essential. Choosing a spacious weekend duffle that can easily be folded up and tucked away is sure to be helpful.  

72 Hr Duffle, $74.95, MEC

Natasha Bruno is a Toronto-based freelance writer with an obsession for beauty, health & wellness, women's issues, and curly hair. Her byline can also be found in The Kit, the Toronto Star, S/ magazine, Sharp Magazine, Bustle, FASHION magazine, among other outlets. Follow her journey on Instagram @natashajbruno.


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