How to Clean a Tent That Smells

How to Clean a Tent That Smells

I’ve been camping many times in my life, and sometimes the tent I was using had a bad smell, and it got me thinking, how can I clean a tent that smells?

One of the worst camping experiences I’ve had is having to sleep in a tent that smells, so I did a little research to find out what causes these smells. I found that the biggest problem is the growth of mildew and mold, and this most often occurs when the tent is stored wet.

If you pull out your tent to go camping, and the smell nearly knocks you over, then drastic action is required! Soaking the tent in a mixture of white vinegar, lemon juice, and water will kill the smell, and then you can pitch to give it a proper clean. Remember to leave it to dry before packing it away.

Let’s take a look at what causes the mold and how you can prevent it from forming in the first place.

Preventing your Tent getting Smelly

As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure! If you can prevent your tent from getting smelly in the first place, you’ll save yourself a whole stack of work.

So how do you do that?

Most tent smells can be traced back to mold and mildew, but what causes it to develop in your tent? In a word, moisture.

You may have been on a week-long camping trip, and it didn’t rain once. So you can put your tent away without cleaning it, right? Er, no, that’s wrong!

More than likely, when you got up in the morning, your tent was covered in the morning dew? Even if it wasn’t the underside of your tent is bound to be wet.

If this dampness isn’t completely removed before you store your tent, mold and mildew will form very quickly. So what can we do to keep your tent dry and clean?

  • Use a tent footprint or groundsheet. Laying a groundsheet or tarp on the ground to erect your tent on prevents moisture from seeping up from the soil. It can also prevent damage to the groundsheet of the tent.
  • Wipe your tent dry whenever you can, rather than letting it dry in the sun. Do this particularly in the morning to remove the dew.
  • Avoid packing your tent when it’s wet. If you have to pack it wet, unpack it and dry it as soon as possible.
  • Have tent rules! No shoes or food in the tent. Moisture and crumbs are a recipe for mildew, especially in a warm damp tent.
  • After your trip, give your tent a thorough clean and make sure it is completely dry before storing it.

Important: Do not machine wash your tent

The action of a washing machine, tumbling the contents around to clean them, and then high-speed spinning is not good for the fabric or seams of your tent. At the very least you will shorten the working life of your tent and possibly ruin it there and then. Just don’t do it!

1. Hand wash

The easiest way to do this is to pitch your tent. Trying to wash a folded tent is going to be awkward! If your tent isn’t too grubby, then just rinse it with clean water first to remove dust and dirt. If that’s enough, then dry it thoroughly and store it. 

Should just water not work, then use a mild cleaning fluid in a large bucket of water, and gently scrub the tent. Only use light force as scrubbing too hard can damage the fabric and seams. Use a spray bottle for spot cleaning more difficult stains.

You can gently wash the tent groundsheet, but don’t scrub it, as you may damage it or remove the waterproofing. 

Soap vs natural options

You’ll find a whole range of chemical solutions on the market, each claiming to the best, but to be honest, just a mild dishwashing soap in plenty of water is fine. If you prefer natural solutions, then try mixing vinegar, lemon juice, and water.

Either of these methods should remove the majority of dirt and marks, but if some really stubborn stains won’t move, try contacting the manufacturer for advice. If they are no longer about, try a camping shop for their advice.

When you are trying a new product, try to test it on a spare piece of fabric if you have some or in an area that is not visible. Some chemicals products can react with the material and cause discoloration. 

One good tip is to avoid detergents that have strong fragrances, as bugs seem to be attracted to the smell. If you can find a fragrance free detergent, then all the better.

Removing mold or mildew

When you store your tent even the smallest amount of moisture can cause mold and mildew to form. The problem with mold and mildew is that not only does it smell, but it also stains the fabric, making the tent look unsightly.

There are two ways to remove the stains, with chemicals or with a natural solution.

There are many solutions available to kill mold and mildew, but strong chemicals may damage your tent. If you can, check with the maker of the tent for their advice or check the label on the bottle.

The other alternative is to use the vinegar, lemon juice, and water solution that I mentioned earlier. Spray the affected areas and leave to soak for an hour or so, then gently rub them with a cloth or sponge.

Other Possible Causes of Bad Tent Smells

Modern tents have a polyester urethane coating, which manufacturers apply to waterproof their tents. When this begins to breakdown, it often leaves an awful smell that is similar to urine or vomit. 

The only cure for this is to remove all the coating, which may be time-consuming and difficult. 

The breakdown of the coating usually only happens after many years of use or if there has been a defect during manufacture. In the long run, it may be better to purchase a new tent. 

2. Dry

This is by far the most important step. After all your hard work, cleaning and removing mold and mildew, the very worst thing you can do is put the tent away wet. 

To dry your tent properly, it needs to be pitched. If the weather allows, then pitch it outside, clean the tent thoroughly as discussed above, and then leave it to dry in the sun. 

If the weather is bad, you’ll need somewhere large and dry to pitch it. My garage normally suffices, but you’ll need to leave it up longer than if it was in the sun. Normally, dry it for at least 24 hours, but the longer the better, until you are 100% sure it is bone dry.

3. Store

When you pack the tent away, put some silicon, water-absorbent bags in with it, to help prevent moisture build-up. Try to find a storage location that isn’t damp, humid, or suffers from temperature extremes. Attics and basements seem like a great idea, but more often than not they are a breeding ground for mold and mildew.

Bonus: Fabric Deodorizer

If the smell is only mild, you may be able to get away with just using a fabric deodorizer. 

Final thoughts

So basically, if your tent smells, it’s probably your own fault! I know that sounds a little harsh, but as we’ve found above, how you take care of your tent is the biggest factor in determining if it will start to smell.

There’s nothing worse than pulling your tent out of storage, ready to go camping, and finding that the smell is worse than the oldest, moldiest cheese you’ve ever had! Plus of course, your tent now looks a mess thanks to all the mold and mildew spots.

But before you throw it in the trash, it is possible to reclaim your old tent, using some of the tips above.

The best solution is, of course, to take care of your tent in the first place. Always make sure it is absolutely dry before storing your tent. Try to prevent any build-up of dirt and crumbs inside the tent and always clean it after use.

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Martin Parker
Written by
Martin Parker