How To Clean a Tent

Published on 07/15/2022 · 6 min read Properly cleaning your tent after every trip is the best and easiest way to make sure it will last! Camping & Hiking Expert Elizabeth Hansen breaks it all down here.
Elizabeth H., Camping Expert
By Camping Expert Elizabeth H.

Photo by Clarisse Meyer

Cleaning your tent properly after every trip is the best and easiest way to make sure your tent will last! My family has had tents that are over 25 years old, and it’s because we clean and store them properly. A high-quality tent that is well taken care of will last you for years!

The biggest problem I’ve had with tents is zippers breaking due to sand. This is mainly a problem for those of us who go on camping trips in the deserts of Southern Utah and the surrounding areas. A common problem for people who camp in humid areas is mold or mildew forming on their tents while in storage. Proper cleaning and drying will help you prevent these issues.

My tent after a rainstorm. Photo by Elizabeth Hansen

This is a picture of my tent after a heavy rainstorm at a sandy campground. Sand splashed under my rainfly and onto my tent body. I tried my best to get the sand off while packing up camp that day, but I ended up putting my tent into a large trash bag because I was on a long road trip and didn’t have the option to rinse it and let it dry for a few days. I finally got to my friend’s house, carefully rinsed the sand off, and let the tent air dry before packing it away for my next camping stop.

Why should I clean my tent?

Cleaning your tent should become part of your routine after every trip. It can be a bit of a pain, but it will ensure that your tent lasts for years to come! Cleaning your tent protects the waterproof coatings and reduces the amount of maintenance your tent will need in the future.

How do I clean my tent?

Cleaning your tent begins at the campsite. As you are packing up your tent, shake out any debris that is inside and brush dirt from the outside as you put it into the stuff sack. This can be tricky for solo campers; if I’m camping alone at a place with a picnic table, I’ll use that as a place to set my tent down while I fold it up. For more tips and advice on solo camping, check out my article!

When you get home, you should unpack your tent and decide how dirty it is. If it was dry and dusty where I was camping, I would set up my tent in the backyard and gently spray the dust off with a hose, focusing on the zippered areas and the bottom of the fly. Zippers can also be scrubbed with a toothbrush to clean out any stubborn sand or grit. Once my tent is clean, I would let it dry fully before packing it back up for storage. This is the most important part of cleaning your tent! Damp tents will grow mold and mildew, and the moisture will break down the waterproof coatings over time.

It is best to store your tent in a loose bag, such as an old pillowcase, to allow it to breathe during storage. Long-term storage is best in cool, dry places. Hot or damp places — such as attics or basements — should be avoided if possible. If you must store your tent in a damp place, place it into a sealed plastic storage container to keep it as dry as possible.

If you have determined that your tent needs a bit more than a rinse-off, prepare a bath for your tent! You will need a bathtub or large sink, a non-abrasive sponge, and mild dish soap or gear-specific cleaner, such as Nikwax Tech Wash®. Begin by spot-cleaning any particularly dirty areas that may have bird poop or mud. Gently brush a wet sponge over these areas with a bit of dish soap.

After you have spot-cleaned, fill up your tub with lukewarm water and add your mild soap or gear wash. Prepare your tent by unzipping the doors, then place your tent into its bath. Soak the tent based on your cleaner’s directions, then rinse your tent thoroughly. If soap is left on the tent, it can break down the material over time and attract animals to its smell. After your tent is fully clean, let it dry completely before storing it. Again, this is incredibly important — a dry tent is a happy tent!

How NOT to clean my tent?

Never clean your tent in a washing machine! This will stretch or tear the delicate mesh and tent fabric and harm the seams. Dryers and hot water should also never be used, as the heat will damage the fabric. Avoid using harsh soaps, laundry detergent, bleach, and any scented cleaners. Household cleaners will damage delicate fabrics and destroy waterproof coating, while scented products will attract rodents, insects, and other pest animals, which is always a good thing to avoid.

How to clean sap or other sticky substances off my tent?

This has happened to the best of us; you set your tent up under a beautiful shade tree, only to realize that there is a freshly cut branch and it’s dripping sap. Mineral oil can be used to spot-clean these sticky areas, but use caution when scrubbing. Hard scrubbing will weaken your tent fabric. Wet wipes and hand sanitizers that are alcohol-based can also be used. Be sure to rinse your tent with water after cleaning to remove any cleaning agents!

What if my tent smells like mold or mildew?

Use an enzyme cleaner to clean your tent, being careful to follow the directions on the bottle. If tents are soaked for too long, the waterproof coatings will begin to break down, which can cause another issue. After the smell is gone, be sure to dry your tent fully and store it in a drier place to prevent this problem from happening again. For more tips on storing your gear in the off-season, check out this article.

What should I do if my tent is no longer waterproof?

It is very normal for seams and waterproof coatings to fail over time and with frequent use. Seams are often the first areas to have problems, so it’s good to check them regularly for damage. If you notice that the factory seam tape is failing, remove any sections that have begun to peel off and replace them with new tape. Small holes in tent floors or rainflies can also be repaired using seam tape.

If the entire waterproof coating is failing, you can either redo the coating or just get a whole new tent. The coating will often begin to flake off over time — if this is happening only on small areas of your tent, remove any loose flakes then reseal using a paint-on polyurethane sealant. If the rainfly begins to fail, see if you can find a replacement fly from the manufacturer. If the floor fails, it’s time for a new tent. If you want advice on the best new tent for you, reach out to a Camping & Hiking expert here on Curated!

We all want our gear to last forever, and the best way for that to happen is through careful maintenance. Best of luck and happy trails!

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