How to Clean a Smelly Tent Properly

Most of us come home from a camping trip grateful to return to the comforts of home: air conditioning. Fluffy pillows on an inviting mattress. Our favorite recliner. A stocked fridge.

But before we settle back into modern life, it is imperative to give the tent a proper cleaning, or the next adventure in the woods will find you miserable in your sleeping bag in unbearably smelly quarters.

Cleaning a smelly tent properly is an important task and one that can be completed easily if you follow our simple steps below. Trust us; you will be glad you did the next time you pitch that tent!

Smelly Tent, Smelly Tent: It’s Not Your Fault

Fans of “Friends” know this is how Phoebe Buffay might address the foul odor emanating from her camping gear, but a song will do little to correct the problem! Tents end up giving off a putrid odor as they are an easy target for mold and mildew growth.

If we do not allow a tent to dry completely before storing it, the moisture will lead to mold and mildew growth, which in turn will lead to an unfortunate musty smell the next time you use it.

The smell itself may be a nuisance or inconvenience, but there is more to the problem than just the offensive odor from the moisture buildup. Many people suffer from mold allergies, and a tent filled with such can make those allergy sufferers quite sick!

In addition to mold and mildew, there is another common cause for tent fabric odors: the breakdown of its polyurethane coating. This PU coating makes a tent waterproof; over the years, it will start to break down. The result is a gag-inducing odor and a tent that is no longer ready to stand up to the elements (but don’t worry: we have tips for remedying this situation below).

Proper tent cleaning can help you avoid a ghastly mold and mildew smell (or at least minimize them).

Cleaning Your Smelly Tent: A Step-By-Step Guide

The first and most important step when cleaning your tent fabric is to refer to the manufacturer’s instructions. Our recommendations should work for most smelly tents, but yours might have specific instructions based on the manufacturer’s design and materials.

If you no longer have any of the packaging from when you purchased the tent, you may be able to find the guidelines on the tent manufacturer’s website.

You will need a large outdoor space to clean the tent, a bucket, scrub brush, hose, white vinegar, and/or a cleaning solution such as Nikwax and an odor remover product.

Leave the bleach behind when it comes to cleaning your smelly tent. While your instincts may tell you “bleach will kill the mold and mildew,” bleach can also damage your tent by destroying its waterproof coating and weakening the fabric, which may result in rips and tears.

Step 1: Old Fashioned Soap and Warm Water

Start by mixing warm water and mild soap in your bucket. Scrub the entire tent down and give it a thorough rinsing. You can use a mild dish soap for this step.

Step 2: Natural Odor Killers

Dilute vinegar in warm water in a bathtub and let your tent soak in that mixture for up to an hour. Wring it out, then take it outside to dry. Don’t worry – your tent will not end up smelling like vinegar. That scent will disappear once it dries, which is why vinegar is one of the best, cheapest, most effective, and safest ways to clean almost anything!

Step 3: Stubborn Stains

If you are still finding any stubborn spots on your tent fabric, it may be time to try Revivex Pro Cleaner, which is specifically designed for outdoor gear. You will mix the cleaner and warm water and hit stubborn spots with your scrub brush, then once again fully rinse it off and allow the tent to try.

Step 4: Still Smelly? One More Odor Remover

Revivex also makes an odor eliminator that can be used on stubborn smells. We highly recommend the Revivex odor eliminator, and it should be used over any home “air fresheners” to remedy a smelly tent.

While your favorite home sprays with scents such as “see breeze delight” or “gardenia afternoon” might seem like a good idea for your tent, you want to avoid any type of heavy or perfumed smell that could ultimately attract pests to your tents when you camp.

The best way to deal with tent odor is to neutralize it, not cover it up with new smells.

Learn how to clean a canvas tent here.

A Dry Tent Is a Not-So-Smelly Tent

You cannot rush to store the tent after the cleaning job is done. The tent drying process is the most important part of preventing future mold and mildew growth from moisture. Therefore, you will want to leave it stretched out in the sun to dry fully (which could take up to eight hours).

To aid this process, try draping your tent over a clothesline or patio furniture. Be mindful of your backyard pets who might have access to the tent as it dries. It needs to stay spread out in the sun, so be sure your four-legged friends do not get a hold of the tent and rip it down from its drying perch.

Finally, be mindful of the forecast. If you return from your camping trip in the middle of a downpour, simply spread the tent out the best you can in a covered area (such as your garage) until conditions improve and you can clean it properly in the backyard, without putting it in a damp environment where mold and mildew can grow again.

How to Re-WaterProof Your Tent

Over time (and after thorough cleanings), your tent fabric’s waterproof coating will break down. To stay dry while camping, you must make it waterproof once again.

Fortunately, you can add life to your tent with a simple re-waterproofing technique rather than buying a new one. You will need two products for this process: a general waterproofing spray and Seam Grip.

Seam Grip is used both to repair tears and re-waterproof the seams on your tent, and it cures into a rubber seal after it tries, remaining flexible but also keeping water out.

A waterproofing spray, like the kind made by Nikwax Tech Wash, can be applied to the rest of the tent fabric. It also adds UV protection to prevent sun damage, and a bottle of Nikwax is a great investment as it can be used on other camping and hiking gear, such as backpacks.

Cleaning, drying, deodorizing, and waterproofing your tent will extend its life and make it a much more pleasant place to rest in your sleeping bag while on the trail or at your favorite family campground. Simple maintenance goes a long way toward avoiding mold, mildew, and a smelly tent!

Narcis Bejtic

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