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How to Clean a Tent (And Other Tent Care Tips!)

Taking good care of your tent will greatly improve its lifespan.

Although this involves many things, including proper storage and regular maintenance, the single most important factor is keeping your tent clean.

Luckily, cleaning a tent (both in the field and at home) really isn’t all that hard.

Today, we’re going to break down exactly how to clean your tent plus a few other tent care basics.

Tent Care in the Field

tent camping in winter

The best way to keep your tent clean and in good condition is to take proper care of it in the field.

Setting Up Camp

Follow these tips when setting up camp to improve the life of your tent:

  • Clear Debris – After finding a flat, level spot to pitch your tent, clear away any large debris like branches, pine cones, and rocks from underneath where the tent will be pitched.
  • Use a Ground Cloth – An extra layer under your tent will do wonders to keep it in good repair. Use a ground cloth, like a tent footprint or a tarp, under your tent.
  • Look for Shade – UV rays, especially at the peak of the day and for several days at a time, can seriously harm the fabric of your tent. So, pitch your tent in shade if possible (this also helps keep your tent cool).

Just following these very basic tent setup tips will help keep your tent clean.

Using Your Tent

Just as important to tent cleanliness as proper tent setup is proper use of your tent while camping:

  • Bring a Broom – If you’re car camping, a miniature broom and dust pan is very helpful to keep your tent clean, especially if you’re camping with kids or a dog.
  • No Food Inside – Don’t bring food or drinks (other than water) inside your tent! Not only does this prevent spills and keep your tent clean, but it’s also essential for avoiding wildlife encounters.
  • Take Off Your Boots – Always leave your boots outside of your tent to prevent it from getting dirty. This is a major reason why I prefer a tent with a large, full coverage vestibule.

Personally, I like to do a quick one-minute tent cleanup each morning. I’ll shake out the sleeping bags, do a quick sweep, and wipe up any spills (even though I already said no food!). A quick camp cleaning really does help make cleaning your tent at home easier.

Packing Up Your Tent

Finally, when it comes to in-field tent care, it’s essential to take a few moments to properly pack away your tent:

  • Shake It Out – Open your tent doors and shake out any large debris before dissembling your tent and packing it away.
  • Let Dry If Possible – If your tent is damp, it’s best to let it dry out before packing it back into your car. If it’s still raining or you need to get going, try to spread it out in your car to at least facilitate a little drying before you get home.
  • Roll Instead of Fold – You’ll probably be fine folding up a tent, but rolling your tent is an easy way to prevent damages and improve your tent’s lifespan.

As soon as you get home, take your tent out of its stuff sack or storage sack. I talk more about proper tent storage below.

How to Clean Your Tent

How to clean a tent that smells: Tent by a river

Cleaning a tent might seem daunting – but it’s actually quite easy.

But, as long as you’re properly using and storing your tent, including cleaning out debris after each use, it’s unlikely you’ll ever have to wash it.

In fact, I’ve rarely ever had to wash a tent. Instead, a quick spot clean after a particularly dirty camping trip is all that’s needed. Chances are, if your tent needs a full wash, you weren’t using – or more likely storing – it properly.

I’ve had my current tent for going on five years and I’ve yet to wash it. Sweeping it out, a quick spot clean, and, most importantly, letting it completely dry before storing is all I’ve had to do to keep it in near perfect condition, even though I go camping regularly in all weather conditions.

With that in mind, here is exactly how to clean a tent in several different scenarios.

How to Clean a Dirty Tent

First things first, let your tent air dry until it’s completely dry.

Once this is done, open any doors and windows and shake out any leftover debris.

Usually, even if your tent is muddy from a rainy camping trip, most of the dirt and grime will shake out once dry.

At this point, I like to spot clean my tent with a non-abrasive sponge. Use cool water and a non-detergent soap.

Clean your tent by hand by gently scrubbing any soiled areas until clean.

Pine sap and other sticky stains are a little trickier. But a good mineral oil or something like hand sanitizer should do the trick. Remember to rinse the tent when done.

For a seriously dirty tent, you can use a large bucket, bathtub, or sink to wash the entire thing with the same method (hand scrub with gentle sponge, cool water, and non-detergent soap).

I’ve even tested washing a tent with a hose and it works well enough. Just remember to use the gentlest setting possible if you’re using a nozzle or wand.

And, no matter what method you use, make sure to let your tent dry out completely after cleaning!

How to Clean a Tent That Smells

As mentioned several times already, proper tent storage (namely letting it dry out completely) is the number one way to combat odors.

But, if your tent does start to smell, it’s completely possible to clean it so that the odor goes away.

Most important is to always avoid using a washing machine. You never want to wash a tent in a washer machine as there’s a high chance of causing damage to the delicate fabrics.

Use the same method as discussed above for how to clean a dirty tent.

But, instead of spot cleaning the tent, skip straight to the full hand washing process. Use a bucket, bathtub, or sink to completely submerge the tent in cool water.

Add in a non-detergent soap (make sure it also has no fragrance). Gently scrub and agitate the tent with your hand.

An alternative DIY solution is to mix vinegar and lemon juice into the water. Soap can sometimes leave a residue. Vinegar and lemon juice don’t carry this risk.

Make sure to completely rinse the tent after washing. Often this will take several additional baths of clean water to complete.

Clean both the rainfly and the tent body as both can carry odor.

Remember that, even if you’re using a non-abrasive sponge, you must scrub gently. Scrubbing too vigorously can ruin your tent’s waterproofing coat.

Here is even more information on how to clean a tent that smells.

How to Clean Mold or Mildew from a Tent

Mold and mildew are surefire signs that your tent wasn’t stored properly.

A wet, or even just slightly damp tent, stored in a stuff sack for too long without drying is almost certain to cause mold, mildew, or odors.

Like my DIY tent washing method above, your best bet is to mix vinegar and a small amount of lemon juice in a spray bottle.

Thoroughly wash your tent first, let it completely dry again, and then spray with the vinegar and lemon juice mixture.

Let the tent sit out and air dry once again. Once it’s completely dry, the mold and mildew should be gone. Better yet, the lemon and vinegar will act as a natural disinfectant.

You can, of course, also buy a mold and mildew stain remover online, but I’ve found that using vinegar and lemon juice is a more effective, not to mention much cheaper, method.

How to Store Your Tent

Two tents camping in the backcountry.

In my opinion, proper tent storage is far more important than cleaning your tent.

In fact, storing your tent the right way actually prevents odors, mold, and mildew – which greatly reduces the chances you’ll ever have to give your tent a thorough wash.

Here’s what you need to know about storing a camping tent:

  • Air Dry – Always, always, always let your tent completely air dry out before you store it.
  • Store Loosely – A stuff sack is great for camping, but not very good for storage. Leave your tent unpacked and spread out if possible. If space is an issue, a standard tent storage sack (that’s not a compression sack) is ideal.
  • Cool, Dry Location – A cool, dry location is the best place to store your tent. Avoid storing your tent in a damp area.

I just want to reiterate one more time – always let your tent completely dry out before you store it! This is the number one thing you can do to increase the lifespan of a tent.

Other Tent Care and Repair Tips

camping tent at sunset

Once my tent is completely dry after a trip, I take a few moments to inspect it for damages before storing it.

Here are a few tent care, maintenance, and repair tips to keep in mind:

  • Patch Tears – Patch any tears with a tent repair kit as soon as possible. Both repair tape and mesh patch kits are available.
  • Reseal Seams – Use a liquid seam sealer to reseal any leaky tent seams. You can also retape seams but this is more difficult. Make sure to get the right type of seam sealer for your tent fabric (both silicone-treated fabric and polyurethane-treated fabric sealers are available).
  • Fix Tent Poles – A pole repair sleeve (similar to a splint) is the best way to repair a tent pole. Simply place the sleeve over the tent pole and tighten with a bit of duct tape. It’s not pretty, but it works!
  • Reapply Waterproofing – Take a moment to inspect your tent’s waterproof coating. If it’s starting to fail (visibly peeling), then it’s time to either reapply a thin coat of paint-on polyurethane sealant. Some tent manufacturers also provide replacement rainflies (which is probably a better option if available).
  • Follow Instructions – Always check the manufacturer instructions before making repairs or cleaning your tent.

Although I’ve never gone this route (I always do DIY tent repairs), professional tent repair services are available.

Many outdoor retailers, both chains and mom and pop shops, offer repairs. For example, REI Repair Services can help you fix a tent.  

But, in my opinion, unless your tent is very expensive or specialized, it’s usually better to just invest in a new tent if you can’t fix any damages yourself.

Our guides to the best camping tents, best winter tents, and best family tents will help you pick an excellent tent replacement.

Why Taking Care of Your Tent Is Important

tents in the woods at sunset

The benefits of tent care seem obvious – but, so many people don’t take care of their tent or store it properly, that it’s important to reiterate why you should.

  • Prolong Lifespan – Even just basic tent care and cleaning will greatly prolong the life of your tent.
  • Increase Enjoyment – A dirty, grimy, smelly tent can simply make tent camping miserable.
  • Keep Animals Away – Food spills and other tent odors can attract animals. You especially don’t want this when camping in bear country!
  • Ensure Weatherproofing – Regularly cleaning, inspecting, and repairing your tent will help ensure that it’s waterproof when you need it to be waterproof.

Luckily, as we’ve shown you throughout this guide, basic tent maintenance is super quick and easy.

Learn More About Cleaning Camping Gear

A tent is only one component of your camping checklist or backpacking checklist.

But every piece of camping gear is important to clean and maintain, not only your tent.

Stay tuned for more camping gear cleaning guides, including how to clean your sleeping bag.

And, like always, let us know in the comments below if you have any more questions!

Happy Camping!