- A gallon of vinegar
- Mild dish soap or detergent, fragrance-free
- Spray bottle
- 5-gallon bucket or plastic tub large enough to soak your tent
- Baking soda or borax
- Soft brush or sponge
The cleaning procedure
The process is straightforward and it won’t take to much time. It really depends on how badly the tent smells. Therefore, we’re going to see both the easy and the hardest way.
For tents that are not that dirty
Now that you have all the required items, here are the steps for cleaning a tent that smells:
- White vinegar is your friend – A gallon of the stuff can be bought for less than 3 dollars at most discount stores. Make a 50/50 mix of water and vinegar in the spray bottle, and you are ready to start cleaning the tent. You may also add about a fourth a cup of lemon juice if you want to offset the vinegar smell, but it is not necessary. Alternatively, you may also try a disinfectant spray such as Lysol, but the vinegar solution is the sure thing and much more economical. Disinfectant sprays may also contain fragrances which may not be pleasant for all of the tent occupants.
- Pitch the tent outside on the patio, yard or driveway – Brush away any debris and inspect the tent for any mold or mildew spots. If your tent is clear of stains but just smells musty, you may be able to spray it all over with your vinegar solution and let it dry out in the sun. If there are mildew or mold spots, you will still pitch the tent, but before mixing the vinegar solution spray straight vinegar on the mildew and let it sit for an hour. Spray the entire tent with a 50/50 vinegar solution. After an hour or so, use a soft brush or sponge dipped in the soap to scrub away the stain. Be gentle, so you do not rub away the waterproof coating.
- Never use bleach – It will weaken the fibers and destroy the tent’s waterproofing. Fragrances attract unwanted critters so they should be avoided in the products you use.
- Drying time – After the tent dries, you will not be able to smell the vinegar. If your tent still smells, apply a second coat. Hopefully, the nasty smell will be gone by now.
Cleaning badly smelling tents
If the tent is really dirty, I recommend doing this chore on a concrete surface, such as a patio or driveway.
Fill your bucked or tub a third of the way with water, add about a half cup of the mild detergent and half a gallon of vinegar. For a large tent, use a cup of detergent and the rest of the vinegar.
Stir then stuff your tent into the container. You may use your hands or feet to agitate the fabric but be gentle. Rubber gloves may come in handy if you have sensitive skin.
Do not use a washboard for this step; tent material may seem tough, but the waterproofing is not. Gentle scrubbing only!
Let the tent soak for at least an hour. Pulling the tent out of the tub is the most challenging part of this chore. Make it fun by turning on the music. Get some volunteers to help if you have a big tent.
Everyone should hold the tent at each end and slowly and gently wring the water out. Then spread the tent out on the concrete and hose out all the soapy water. Roll up the tent long wise and with clean bare feet. Wring out the rinse water. This is where you crank up the music and dance it out!
Another way you can wring out the water is to lay down the tent and use an empty 5 gallon bucket or round trash can as a rolling pin. This works well if you are doing the chore by yourself.
Do not excessively fold, squeeze, ring, twist or smash the tent. Do not use any kind of heater or hot air to facilitate drying; this could shrink or weaken the fibers.
After wringing out the tent, spread it out over a clothesline, patio furniture, metal fencing or even the bed of a truck to dry. It is crucial though, not to let it completely dry on an uneven surface.
Take the slightly damp tent and pitch it to complete the drying process. This ensures the tent does not get crimped when drying out. It also enables you to inspect it for more stains that may need additional treatment with vinegar and soap.
It may be tempting to take this big beast to the laundry mat (check our article about using a washing machine to clean a tent) and use one of those awesome giant washing machines, but don’t do it! You might think you took care of the problem–after all, the tent looks great! Once you are out in the woods, and you get a little rain, you will find yourself awake and wet. Nothing ruins a tent’s waterproofing faster than a washing machine. Yes, you can re-waterproof your tent, but that is just replacing one chore with another. The machine will weaken the tent and the cost of the laundry mat and waterproofing is much higher than a little vinegar, soap and elbow grease.
You can avoid this big cleaning chore in the future by using these strategies to care for your tent:
- When you get home from a camping trip, shake out the tent and spray with Lysol. Air it out and make sure it is completely dry before storing it. Make sure there is no condensation left inside.
- Fold it loosely and store it in a suitcase, laundry bag or other container which allows air flow. Plastic tubs with sealed lids are not recommended.
- Add an open box of baking soda or borax to keep your tent dry and deodorized.
- If your climate has seasons of dampness or your storage space has damp tendencies, a de-humidifying silica gel product can also be used in the container or storage area. These are found in the laundry section of your local discount store.
A clean, fresh tent which is easy to maintain and use is essential to your vacation camping trip. Bring your spray disinfectant along for prevention and enjoy nature without that musty taint. Taking a little time to clean and air out your tent is not wasted effort. Make it fun while dreaming about your next weekend escape.