How to clean a tent that smells with these 6 simple tips

Camping tent in summer forest
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One of the best ways to unwind after a tiring week is to enjoy fresh camping air. So, you start preparing for a camping trip.

As you grab the necessary camping gear, one thing that can ruin your excitement is a stinky tent. No one wants a tent that smells.

Sometimes, a tent may appear to be free of dirt and still give off a bad odor. A clean tent shouldn’t just appear clean, it should also smell nice.

We are all about providing information that will help you enjoy your camping trip. So, we will be telling you how to clean a tent that smells awful in this article.

The information we will be providing includes how to get rid of dirt and grime and even invisible smelly contaminants.

Now, let’s get started.

Why Do Tents Smell?

Before you learn how to wash your tent, you have to understand why tents smell. This will make it easier for you to keep your tent smelling nice.

Dirt and Grime

The presence of dirt and grime doesn’t always result in a smelly tent. However, dirt resulting from spill food can make a tent smell terribly.

Aside from bad odors, dirt and grime will make your tent unsightly. This will be even worse if you will be going camping with friends. So, you should do your best to keep dirt and grime out of your tent.

Mold or Mildew

Illustration of mold and mildew

Mold/mildew are major causes of bad smells in a tent. The spores of these organisms are ubiquitous and all they need to grow in your tent is a little moisture.

So, you put your tent at a huge risk of mold growth whenever you pack it wet or store it in damp conditions. A tent with mold or mildew growth is not a good place to sleep due to its stale and musty odor.

But bad smells aren’t all that you should be worried about when it comes to mold growth. Mold/mildew is known to cause very serious respiratory conditions. You may learn more about the dangers of exposure to mold here.

If your tent happens to have mold or mildew then read our step-by-step guide on how to get rid of mold.

The Breakdown of Polyurethane

Tent with waterproof fabric

It’s always a good idea to make sure you have a waterproof tent when camping, but it might be worth thinking about the long-term effects of that protection. Several tents today are waterproof thanks to their polymer coat.

However, the long exposure of these tents to sun rays eventually leads to the breakdown of polyurethane.

As a result, they eventually start out smelling, not in an outdoor way either- more like pee inside your house kind of smell!

Prevention Is Much Better

Tent Footprint

There is no fun cleaning a tent every time. So if you are tired of doing this, you need to learn how to prevent the buildup of bad smells in your tent.

Below is a to-do list on how to achieve this:

  1. Always use a footprint in your tent. This will prevent the accumulation of moisture on your tent’s floor.
  2. In the event of rain or morning dew, your tent will be better of with a wipe down. You shouldn’t just take it to your next destination wet or wait for it to dry. But if you have no choice but to pack it wet, ensure that you give it time to dry as soon as you can.
  3. Ensure that food and shoes don’t go into your tent. This is the easiest way to keep moisture and crumbs away and in doing so, avoid the growth of mold and mildew.
  4. When you return from your camping trip, you should take some time to care for your tent. Washing your tent is a must after every long trip. However, washing your tent once per season will be a good choice if you prefer short camping trips.
  5. Carefully spot clean grimy areas immediately you discover them and let the tent dry completely. This will go a long way in preventing the buildup of bad smells.

How to Clean a smelly Tent

Cleaning a tent with water

You can get rid of bad tent smells through various methods. So, the right cleaning method will depend on the cause of the odor.

Now let’s take a look at the different solutions available:

Air Drying

This is the simplest way of getting rid of foul odors. All you have to do is take your tent outside and hang it in a line or any similar structure.

The sun and breeze will handle the rest. Remember to brush off all forms of dirt. Your tent should be smelling nice once again after a couple of days.

Suitable For: This method is for tents that have become smelly after spending time in musty basements or similar places. It is also ideal for odors that come from stale food and dirty clothes. However, it is not ideal for tents that have mold or mildew.

Wash Your Tent

If the foul odor in your tent is caused by filth, then you will need to wash your tent. The foul odors will be eliminated once you scrub with mild detergent and water.

You may either clean the tent while it is still pitched or submerge the tent in a tub.

Both can be done through the following process:

  1. Spot cleaning: You should start by spot cleaning any part of the tent that is badly stained. You may use either a soft brush or a similar item.
  2. Wash your tent: With the aid of a non-abrasive sponge and dish soap, give your tent a gentle scrub. Even the seams and the zippers should be washed.
  3. Rinse and Dry: The next step will be to rinse your tent properly. Ensure that is no soap left and then, let it dry.

You may either hang it or leave it pitched. Also, you should ensure that your tent isn’t exposed to the sun.

Suitable For: This tent cleaning method is effective against all types of odors. These include odors from dirt, mold, and mildew. Tent cleaning will also be a good start if you plan to waterproof your tent.

DIY Mold Removal

baking soda, vinegar and lemon

If you need to remove mold from your tent, you can get it done with warm water and detergent. However, you will have to do more than this if you want to eliminate mold for good.

Fortunately, you can find all you need in your home:

Salt and Lemon Juice

  1. Add 1 cup each of salt and lemon juice to a gallon of warm water.
  2. Scrub the moldy areas with the mixture. Use a bristle brush or a piece of cloth. But if you have a canvas tent, you can only use a bristle wash.
  3. Now, wash the tent according to the steps listed above.

Vinegar

  1. Add a cup of white vinegar to a gallon of water.
  2. Pour the solution into a spray bottle and then apply it to the parts of your tent with mold growth.
  3. A sponge should then be used to clean the areas with mold. But if you own a canvas tent, a bristle brush will be the right choice.
  4. For the vinegar to have the necessary effect, you should avoid rinsing the tent. You should also ensure that the tent is completely dry before taking it out of the sun.

You may check out this guide to learn more on how to remove mold and mildew from tents.

Suitable For: Both methods are excellent for getting rid of troublesome mold and mildew.

Enzyme Cleaner

Even if you remove all stains, sometimes the smell won’t just go away. If all that we have mentioned so far failed to stop the odor, then there is something else that you can try.

For severe cases of mold and mildew, the best solution is an enzyme cleaner. Enzyme cleaners are trusted for the removal of both stains and odors.

  1. Fill a tub with water and then dilute with an enzyme cleaner.
  2. Ensure that all zippers and flaps are opened.
  3. Let the tent soak in the mixture for five minutes. Ensure that the entire tent is in the tub.
  4. After that, remove the tent and let it sit. There is no need to rinse the tent; the odor will disappear once it becomes dry.

Suitable For: This method is highly effective against the toughest mold and mildew.

Waterproofing

Waterproof tent with rain drops

Just as we mentioned earlier, a tent can become stinky due to the breakdown of its waterproofing properties. It happens to all tents sooner or later.

When the waterproofing of your tent starts breaking down, you will perceive a urine or vomit-like smell. Fortunately, you can stop the problem by providing a new waterproof coating.

A good waterproofing spray won’t just restore your tent’s waterproofing, but it will also add UV protection.

  • You should start by washing your tent properly. After that, set it up and place the fly close to it.
  • Spray both items evenly with your waterproofing spray.
  • If you sprayed any excess product, you should wipe it away with a piece of cloth.
  • Give the tent and the rainfly some time to dry completely.

For more information check out our article on how to waterproof a tent.

More Tips on How To Clean a Tent that Smells

Girl washing a tent

Though you have to keep your tent smelling nice, there are some things you need to know. This will ensure that you don’t damage your tent in the process.

Don’t Wash in a Washing Machine

Whatever you do, don’t machine wash a tent. Tents aren’t made to withstand the spinning and tumbling that go on in a washing machine.

If your tent goes through a full wash cycle, there’s a great chance that the fabric will become torn. The waterproof coating will also wear away.

Watch this video to learn more about the dos and don’ts of tent care:

Soap or All Natural?

baking soda, vinegar and lemon

If you are washing a tent for the first time, you may be wondering about the right product to use. The truth is that a tent can be washed with both chemicals and natural products.

If you are using a chemical product, you don’t need something expensive. A mild detergent or dish soap could do the trick.

However, you should avoid using something with a strong fragrance. This is because such products are known to attract critters in the wild.

You may also use all-natural cleaners like vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda. This may just be the best option due to its environmentally friendly nature. Also, it takes lesser time since no rinsing will be required after.

Handwashing a Tent

Your tent may get so dirty that you have to give it a thorough cleaning. Since you can’t use washing machines, you will have to give it a hand wash.

First, you should use a spray bottle and a soft sponge to scrub dirty spots. After that, you may wash the outer part of the fabric with your hands.

However, you should wash very gently to prevent any damage. The underside of the rainfly shouldn’t be scrubbed too. Finally, you should know that washing a tent is easier when it is pitched.

How to Store a Tent After Washing

Rain tent folded

After washing smelly tents and leaving them to completely dry, the next step will be to store them properly. First, you should let your tent dry before thinking about storing it.

Also, your tent bag isn’t the best place to store it. There isn’t enough space in such a bag for the fabric to breathe. The ideal bag for your tent should have more space than the one it came with.

The bag should also not be completely sealed to prevent mold growth. You may then cover it with a piece of cloth to prevent the buildup of dust.

You may read this guide to learn how to weatherproof a tent from storms and snow.

Key Insights & Takeaways

Camping tent and accessories in wilderness on summer day

We have shared tips on how to clean a tent that smells are safe and will work for 99.9% of all tents manufactured today.  However, you should try to check out the manufacturer’s instructions, especially if you will be using a chemical. 

Air drying a stinky tent should get rid of the odor and extend the life of your tent. But if that doesn’t work, you may give it a hand wash. DIY mold removal and enzyme cleaning should be done in extreme conditions.

Remember that it is much better to prevent a tent from stinking than to clean a stinky tent. This will help you save time and any additional cost on soaps or an odor eliminator. 

You should always take some time to clean your tent after each camping trip. This way, you can avoid the unpleasant surprise of picking a stinky tent when preparing for a trip.

You may also watch this short video for a demonstration of how to clean a tent that smells:

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I freshen up a smelly tent?


To freshen up a stinky tent, you will need to mix lemon juice and white vinegar in water. The mixture is effective against odors and mold.

How long should I air out a tent?


Remove all forms of debris from the tent and then leave it to sit for between 2 to 3 days. The breeze is usually enough to get rid of the odor.

Is tent mold dangerous?


Not all types of mold are harmful, and you may even stay in a moldy tent for a short while. However, extended exposure to mold is known to trigger allergies and cause respiratory problems.

What is the fastest way to dry a tent?


If the sun is out, you may set it up outdoors. But in wet conditions, your garage or an uncarpeted room will be ideal.

Ally Mash
Ally Mash
Ally is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has spent most of his free time backpacking through South America, Iceland, Vietnam, and Europe. He loves sharing his experience through blogging. His mission is to get more people in the mindset of protecting our planet by sharing its beauty.

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