How to Clean Your Tent (Plus 5 Tent Care Tips) (2022)

Man jet washing his fishing bivvy
Table of Contents

    It’s a good idea to clean your tent every time your return from a camping or backpacking trip. You’ll also want to give it a quick clean when you first take it home and if you’re taking it out of storage after a lot of time has passed. Thankfully, tents are fairly easy to clean and maintain.

    Plus, putting in the time to take good care of your tent will help prevent wear and tear. In fact, proper care and cleaning of outdoor gear like tents as well as your sleeping bags, stuff sacks, and hiking boots, can help them last longer and will help keep you safe and dry on your next camping trip. After all, a clean tent is going to a lot more comfortable than a dirty one! Especially considering that common tent care issues include things like mildew, insect damage, and leakage. 

    What Do I Need to Clean My Tent?

    Okay, so you’ve just returned from a beautiful backpacking trip and you’re ready to clean your tent and put it away in storage. What cleaners and tools will you need to complete the job? It depends a bit on deep of a clean you’re going for. For a regular clean, you only need dish soap, gear cleaner, which we’ll cover in a moment, a cloth or sponge, and a tub.

    A toothbrush can also be helpful for cleaning out the zippers if they’re sandy or gritty and need a bit of extra scrubbing. Gear cleaner, like Nikwax’s Tech Wash, is designed specifically for outdoor gear like tents, and it can be used both to spot clean and in a washing machine. It preserves the waterproofing of outdoor gear.

    If you have an especially dirty tent, or if you notice a bad smell that doesn’t seem to go away, you may need an enzyme cleaner to remove mold, mildew, and any other organic material. Mineral oil can also be useful for removing pine sap, but both of these cleaners can be more abrasive than mild dish soap or Nikwax, so be careful in using them on your tent.

    When you first purchase a new tent, it’s a good idea to inspect it, give it a basic cleaning, seal the seams, and perform any other waterproofing it might need. We’ll cover seam sealing and waterproofing in the 5 Tent Care Tips below.

    Friends sitting near tent in woodland clearing,

    Always hand clean your tent…washing machines/dryers will damage the material.

    Tent Cleaning from Top to Bottom 

    To start, you’ll want to set your tent up and look over the entire tent for dirty areas. It’s best to do this on a warm, sunny day and in an area that you don’t mind getting a bit wet. You’re going to spot clean the tent first and then either rinse it in a tub or bathtub.

    For a deeper clean, you can soak the entire tent in cold to lukewarm water with a gear cleaner. Pay close attention to the gear cleaner instructions, however, and don’t over-soak your tent. This can damage the tent’s waterproof coating and seams. 

    You also want to avoid using bleach and never put your tent in the washing machine or dryer. Warm water and dish soap will generally do the trick. One of the best ways to wear down your tent quickly is to put it through the washer and dryer with regular detergent.

    Instead, you should just spot clean wherever it’s dirty with the dish soap, soak it with the gear cleaner if needed, and then rinse the tent thoroughly with clean, cold water. You may need to do this multiple times to get all the soapy water out from your tent and rainfly. 

    The best way to dry your tent is to let it air dry completely. Again, this is why it’s best to clean your tent on a nice, sunny day! That said, you should dry your tent in a shady area to protect it from UV damage. Make sure the tent is completely dry before you store it.

    Pay special attention to the seams and other thicker areas to prevent mold and mildew from growing. Dampness can also cause color transfers to occur between darker and lighter parts of the tent. This won’t damage the tent’s performance, but it’s one more reason to avoid putting your tent away damp. 

    How to Clean Tent Poles, Zippers, and More

    Once you’ve cleaned the bulk of the tent, it’s time to pay some special attention to key areas of the tent. Zippers and other metal components can be rinsed with water and then wiped down with a dry cloth. Again, a toothbrush can be a good way to remove sand or any other stuck-in grit if you need to. You want to avoid using too much water or soap on zippers because it can cause them to rust.

    In fact, for deeper cleaning, or if you’re using waterproofing spray or sealant on your tent, you may want to tape up the zippers with painter’s tape. This way they won’t get wet. Regardless, you should avoid zippers and other metal pieces when waterproofing or sealing your tent and make sure to wipe them dry if they do get wet. 

    Tent poles can similarly be wiped down with a dry, non-abrasive cloth. With all metal parts, make sure you dry them thoroughly before putting your tent away. This is especially important if your tent has been exposed to salt spray, which can corrode metal very quickly.

    Finally, you’ll want to spend some extra time inspecting the rainfly and consider spraying tit with a DWR (durable water repellent) even if you’re not going to waterproof the rest of the tent. There are more instructions on how to keep up the strength of your tent’s protective coating below and the rainfly is the part of your tent most likely to need this kind of upkeep. 

    5 Bonus Tent Care Tips 

    You can also take steps to prevent grime from building up in the first place. Don’t wear shoes in the tent and consider placing a mat or small rug inside the entrance to catch sand, dirt, and other detritus. You can also sweep out your tent daily while it’s in use. 

    And you should make sure to wipe up any spills immediately. Finally, don’t keep food or drinks in your tent. Instead, you should use a bear bag, bear canister, or another storage container made specifically to keep animals out of your f and out of your tent! 

    Cleaning your tent after each use and making sure it’s completely dry before you put it back in storage are important first steps in tent care. But there’s much more you can do to keep your tent in great shape. When you first get your new tent home, you should take some time to reinforce some of the seams, and possibly do some additional waterproofing as well. 

    1. Sealing Your Seams

    One way to improve the performance of your tent, especially in wet weather, is to seal the seams. There are a few different kinds of seam sealants you can use, include tape, glue, and sprays. The most important decision to make when sealing seams in your tent, however, is to figure out which seams you need to seal. 

    Some of the seams on your tent, such as the roof seams and main seams, will likely be sealed well right from the factory. Older tents may need sealant applied to reinforce even factory-sealed seams, however. The seams you’ll want to pay special attention to seams on the tent floor, where there might be contact with the ground. Then, you should also seal any reinforcement or rain flap seams that aren’t sealed already. 

    Once you have your tent set up and have examined the seams, you can start applying a seam sealer. If you’re refurbishing an old tent, make sure to clean the seams first. You can use a small amount of rubbing alcohol to spot clean the seams. Be sure to remove any damaged or peeling seam taping. 

    Only apply seam sealer in a well-ventilated area. The sealant will need to dry for 12 to 24 hours. Consult the instructions on the seam sealer you’re using for the specific drying time. Some sealants, like Kenyon Seam Sealer 3, come with an applicator while others, like Gear Aid’s Seam Grip, use a brush. Regardless, make sure not to over-apply sealant, applying multiple thin layers rather than a single thick one.

    2. Refurbishing Your Tent’s Waterproofing

    Another way to improve your tent’s performance is to refresh the waterproofing on your tent’s fabric. If you notice that water isn’t beading on any part of the walls, floor, or roof of your tent, it may be time to reapply some waterproofing. The waterproof coating on your tent, unfortunately, can break down over time. Eventually, this will lead to leaking, as well as a further breakdown of the tent material. 

    Thankfully, there’s a quick fix for reinvigorating your tent’s waterproof coating. Durable water repellent, or DWR, can be applied to help keep you and your tent dry. Gear Aid’s Revivex is one of the most popular durable waterproofing solutions.

    You can buy a spray or wash-in repellent that revives the waterproof function of outdoor gear. This stuff is great for keeping your tent fully dry, but you can also use it on jackets, sleeping bags, and more. Pay attention to the specific instructions given for each product, and make sure you’re using the right water repellent for your gear.

    You can even seal small holes or tears in your tent using tenacious tape. This super-strong tape will create a waterproof seal over small holes so you don’t have to replace a tent. That said, you should be careful whenever setting up camp to protect the floor of your tent. Avoid stones and other sharp objects that could rip your tent, and use a groundsheet to protect your tent’s floor from the elements. 

    3. Preventing UV Damage

    UV damage is one more way in which the elements can break down the materials of your tent. The most noticeable effect of UV damage is fading color, but there’s a lot more to be worried about it when it comes to damage from direct sunlight. UV rays can actually damage the fabric your tent is made of, reducing its strength and increasing the likelihood of water retention. 

    There’s an obvious way to reduce the amount of UV damage your tent takes: set it up out of direct sunlight where possible. But you can also use specially-made gear washes to improve the UV protection of your tent. If you notice your tent’s fabric has lost a lot of its color, or it seems to be retaining water and losing some of its repellence, it may be time to boost your UV protection with a solar gear wash.

    Tent with water drops

    Moisture retention and leakage are some signs your tent needs to be replaced.

    4. When To Buy A New Tent 

    At some point, however, you are going to have to replace your tent. Even the best-made tents can only go for about five years of frequent use. Of course, just how long your tent will last depends on how often you use it, what conditions you’re using it in, and the materials your tent is made of. One big indication that it’s time to pick out a new home away from home is when your tent starts retaining moisture. 

    If you can’t get your tent to fully dry, notice recurring dampness, or even excessive seepage or leaking during use, consider replacing your tent. Try refreshing the waterproofing first, as well as resealing any seams that have opened up. But if this fails, you may need to check out some of the new tents available on the market. You should also be on the lookout for stretching or sagging material.

    If the tent poles no stretch the fabric tightly into shape, your tent will have trouble repelling rain and may be on its way to breaking down even more. If the fabric seems to have lost its shape, it’s losing its strength as well. Finally, some holes are too large to patch effectively. If you have holes in our tent larger than an inch in diameter, or many small holes, you should consider buying a new tent. 

    5. Proper Tent Storage

    Once your tent is fully clean and dry, it’s time to put it away. You may be surprised at how much of an impact proper tent storage can make on the longevity of your tent, but improper storage is one of the quickest ways to mess up a nice, new tent. 

    You want to store your tent in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight. This will protect the tent from UV radiation, water, and more. All of these elements can weaken the fabric of your tent if you don’t block them out. Roll your tent loosely to allow the fabric to breathe and consider covering it with a clean cloth to prevent dust from collective on the surface. 

    If you have room to store the tent poles fully assembled, do it. This can help reduce tension on the joints and increase the life of your tent poles. Lay tent poles fully flat for storage and avoid stacking anything on top of them. It’s best to leave your tent outside of its carrying bag for long-term storage as this can prevent the fabric from breathing and even hold in moisture. 

    The Golden Rule of Tent Cleaning

    Sometimes it’s the simplest things that matter most and tent cleaning is no different. As has probably become clear throughout this tent cleaning guide, your biggest enemy when it comes to tent maintenance is mold and mildew. Dampness will try to get into your tent’s fabric all the time. In storage, when you’re using it, and whenever you clean it with water. So, keep this golden rule in mind to avoid a mildewy mess: never put your tent away wet!

    Some people even recommend re-applying a DWR (durable water repellent) every time you clean your tent. Whatever you decide to do, it’s clear you should take waterproofing your tent seriously and make sure to tackle any signs of mold or mildew early. After all, no one wants to end up in a wet or moldy tent after a long day of backpacking.


    Bonus tip: Check out this helpful video on how to repair a messed up zipper on your tent, sleeping bag, or anything else! 


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    Riley Draper

    Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.