After spending a week in the outdoors, it certainly feels like everything needs a good scrubbing. My hair, my clothes, my skin, my boys, our shoes, and yes, even our tent. Most of the time our tent is just dusty, but sometimes it is in need of a bonafide wash down. It’s times like this that I want nothing more than to throw the whole thing in the washing machine (or ditch it entirely and buy a new one).
Unfortunately, to properly maintain a tent, it should never be washed in a top loading washing machine. If you absolutely must, you can wash it in a large, industrial size front loading washer on a gentle cycle, hang dry it, and retreat it with weatherproofing and UV proofing sprays — but I really don’t recommend it. Washing machines tear fabrics and wear down protective coating. In fact, I don’t recommend “washing” a tent at all, at least in the traditional sense of the word, unless it has literally been dragged through the mud.
The best way to clean a tent is to take active efforts to keep it clean while on your trip. If you keep your shoes, dirty clothes, snacks, and open container drinks on the outside of the makeshift shelter, your interior will remain squeaky clean. If you have access to a water source while you are camping, you can hose down the outside and allow it to air dry on your last day at the site, which will keep everything in tip-top shape. Prevent the growth of mold and mildew by using protective sprays and allowing the tent to dry completely before storing.
Sadly, if you’re here reading this article, you may already be in a situation where your tent desperately needs to be cleaned. Here are some instructions for proper tent care and maintenance.
What Materials Should I Use to Wash My Tent?
This will depend on what type of tent you have, and how much cleaning you need to do. For a nylon or polyester tent that is just mildly dusty, a hose and a microfiber cloth will do the trick. If your tent is in need of a more serious cleansing, there are specially formulated cleansers on the market. Nikwax is one of the most common brands, and they create a variety of tent cleansing and weatherproofing products. If you can’t get your hands on a cleanser that was made for tent cleaning, a mild hand soap or baby soap will do the trick. You do not want to use anything that has heavy detergents, as this could strip any weatherproofing that you have and wear down the fabric.
Besides a water hose, microfiber cloth, and mild soap, you may need any of the following:
- Vacuum with a brush handle attachment
- Bathtub or other large water holding bin
- A place to hang the tent to dry
- White wine vinegar
- Drying towel
How to Wash a Tent
Canvas tents are made from cotton and are a great investment for insulation and durability if they are cared for properly. Because these tents are not made with synthetic plastics like nylon or polyester, they can’t be wiped down. Instead, you should shake them out to remove excess dust. You can use a vacuum brush attachment to remove additional debris from the exterior and the interior of the tent.
If your tent is need of a deeper cleaning, you can fully submerge it in a bathtub or another large container. Use a microfiber cloth or a sponge and a mild soap (such as baby soap or Nikwax) to spot clean. You may need to repeat this process depending on how dirty your tent is.
If your tent has developed mold or mildew, you should mix one part vinegar to four parts water and directly treat the affected areas. Let the solution stand for several minutes, then scrub with a sponge. Resist the urge to deeply scrub, as this could begin to wear on the fabric, instead opting for quick, soft motions on the surface. After you have scrubbed the area, you should rinse the vinegar with warm water and dry. Skip to the next section to read more about how to dry a tent.
Nylon and Polyester Tents
Tents made from synthetic materials are lightweight and versatile, making them great for backpacking. They are also very easy to keep clean! Most of the time a simple hosing will do. If you do need to complete a deeper clean, set up the tent and use a washcloth, large bucket, and mild soap to spot clean the areas that are extremely dirty. You can also submerge the tent and clean it if you need a more “all over” clean (like if it was literally dragged through the mud). Make sure that the tent is completely dry before storing, paying particular attention to the seams, which can retain moisture longer than the rest of the tent.
How to Dry a Tent
Even if you ignored my advice and chose to machine-wash your tent, never ever machine dry a tent. It exposes your fabric to heat damage, on top of all the other no-no’s that machine washing exposes the fabric too. The best way to dry a tent is to air dry. In fact, that’s just about the only way. However, there are variations to how you air dry it.
The best place to dry your tent is outside, for obvious reasons. The fresh air will help dry the fabric faster, and you can save yourself the potential mess of drip drying a tent in the middle of your living room floor. There are two basic methods, plus a bonus method, to dry your tent outdoors.
“Pitch-Dry:” The first and most obvious method to dry your tent outdoors is to leave it pitched and allow it time to air dry. If you can pack up a dry, clean tent, straight from your campsite, you will save yourself a bunch of headaches. This “pitch-dry” method works extremely well for nylon and polyester tents, especially if it is a windy day. These lightweight tents can dry completely in less than an hour in the right conditions. Canvas tents can also be dried this way, but keep in mind that they are made from cotton, which holds water well. It will definitely take longer, but it is still worth the wait, since canvas tents are more prone to mold and mildew buildup than their synthetic counterparts.
Hang Dry: The second best method is to hang dry. Make sure that your tent is UV protected, then hang it in a sunny and windy area to allow it to dry. This works well with both canvas and nylon/polyester tents.
Other Tips: You may also try laying out the tent fabric on a warm, sun-exposed rock near a cliff’s edge. The heat radiating from the hard surface will help to dry the tent more quickly.
If it’s been raining for ages and it’s going to rain for a million years more, you might be forced to dry your tent inside. If this is the case, you will need to find a good location to place it. Basements and garages make great locations because you have plenty of room to hang or pitch the tent and allow it to dry. Draped over a shower curtain could work as well, depending on the size of the tent. I have even heard of people spreading it over a dining room table and allowing it to drip dry there.
Wherever you choose to put it, make sure that you create the right conditions to help it dry. Warm, circulatory air will help it dry. This means that having a space heater near the tent and a fan (or several fans) blowing directly on it, can drastically decrease your drying time.
If the tent is hanging or pitched, just let it be. But if, for whatever reason, you needed to lay it out somewhere (like your dining room table), be sure to rotate and flip it every few hours to make sure that every inch of the tent gets dry.
How Often Should I Wash My Tent?
Like I said in the beginning, you really shouldn’t wash your tent at all. Dust, hose, and spot clean? Sure, if you need it. But if you are thinking of a full-on tent-bath, think again. You really don’t need it. Not only does it do more harm than good to your tent, but also it’s a serious pain in the butt, and for what? You’re just going to put it back outside to get dirty again anyway.
There’s no set rule for how often a tent should be cleaned. This depends largely on you, your camping style, your tent brand and fabric, and how dirty your tent gets on your camping trips. I recommend routine tent maintenance after each camping excursion. This doesn’t always mean a full wash. Sometimes it is just a shake out. Sometimes you need a little elbow grease. When in doubt, read your manual for specific details on the best methods to clean your tent.