How To Clean A Tent That Smells & Get Rid Of Odors

You’ve just arrived at your campsite, everything is unpacked, and the tent is pitched, but when you walk into your tent, you realize there’s a foul smell. Unfortunately, the smell has permeated into the tent itself. If there’s anything an avid camper needs to know, it’s how to clean a tent that smells.

Here are 10 steps to clean a tent that smells:

  1. Find the cause of the smell
  2. Avoid the washing machine
  3. Use an enzyme cleaner
  4. Vinegar and lemon juice
  5. Handwash your tent
  6. Use a natural detergent
  7. Use a tent air freshener
  8. Air dry your tent
  9. Store your tent correctly
  10. Prevent your tent from smelling bad in the future

There are a few ways to clean your tent, but more importantly, you need to know how to clean your tent for specific bad smells and what products to use. You’ll also want to avoid cleaning methods that can irretrievably damage your tent.

Getting rid of bad smells in a tent will help you sleep better!
Bad smells in your tent will make it hard to have a good nights sleep.

1. Find The Cause Of The Bad Smell In Your Tent

The first step in cleaning your tent if it smells terrible is to find the source of the bad smell. There are a few common reasons for a bad smell in your tent. These include:

Mold Or Mildew

If you’ve been camping in damp regions, then you may have mold or mildew growing inside your tent. This can also happen if you’ve been camping in the rain. Although tents are waterproof, they aren’t able to prevent trapped moisture that accumulates after some wet weather.

If it has rained and you’ve decided to pack up your tent without wiping it down, you may find that mold or mildew is growing inside your tent the next time you use it.

If mold or mildew is present, your tent will show clear signs of black spots. This may be along the sides and on the inner roof of your tent. Mold and mildew may also have a slightly damp and musky smell.

Moisture Retention

Moisture retention in your tent can cause an unpleasant smell. This can be due to dew or damp getting into your tent and not drying properly. Your tent can also retain moisture from the last time you washed it, and it was packed away before being dried completely.


Many tents are made with synthetic fabrics. Synthetic fabrics aren’t breathable, and there is reduced airflow. These are the ideal conditions for bacteria. As these bacteria multiply, they leave a foul smell in your tent.

Dirty Tent

Tents are pitched outside, and naturally, they get dirty, not just on the outside but on the inside too. Your tent can be smelly because it wasn’t being cleaned on your last camping trip.

Especially if you’re rushing to pack up and head home, you may have forgotten to check if there were any bits of food, pet hair, or coffee stains in your tent. Also, neglecting to wipe up messy areas in your tent or everyday spills can cause a nasty stench if left for a long time.

Breakdown Of Polyethylene

This is probably the least likely reason your tent has a foul smell and likely won’t apply to you if your tent is new. If you have a strange urine or vomit smell, it may be caused by the breakdown of the polyethylene fabric of your tent.

Its best to hand wash not machine wash your smelly  tent.
Washing machines and tents dont go well together. Hand wash rather than machine wash your smelly tent.

2. Avoid Washing Your Tent In The Washing Machine If It Smells

Once you have identified the cause of the smell, the next step is to wash your tent. Most people will want to throw their tent in the washing machine because it’s easy and doesn’t take much effort; however, this is a sure way to ruin your tent.

Although tents are made sturdy and durable, a washing machine can be too rough on the fabric and completely wreck your tent.

Besides, a tent is quite large and washing it in a washing machine can be difficult. A washing machine can also destroy the mesh panels on your tent and create even bigger holes for bugs to squeeze in through.

3. Use An Enzyme Cleaner For Mold Smells In Your Tent

If you want to eliminate a bad smell in your tent, you should avoid bleach at all costs. Bleach will ruin the material of your tent and strip the tent’s color. Instead, opt to use an enzyme cleaner to eliminate a smelly tent.

Enzyme cleaners like Gear Aid will eliminate odors and mold in your tent. To use an enzyme cleaner to clean your tent, simply soak your tent in a bathtub or giant tub of water with some enzyme cleaner and let it soak. After a while, you can remove the tent and allow it to air dry.

Most tents can be cleaned with a lemon and vinegar mix in a bath or bucket.
Lemon juice and vinegar is a good all round smell remover for most tent types.

4. Vinegar And Lemon Juice For A Tent That Smells

You can use lemon juice and vinegar if you want a DIY method of cleaning your tent with household products. This solution may work just as well as the enzyme cleaner, but it does depend on what’s causing your tent to smell bad.

To clean your tent with the lemon juice and vinegar solution, soak your tent in a bathtub of warm water. Next, mix the vinegar and lemon juice solution and add it to the bathtub water. Let your tent soak for 1-3 hours before removing it and leaving it to air dry.

The lemon juice and vinegar solution will not only kill bacteria and mold but will leave your tent looking very clean.

5. Handwash, Your Tent, To Get Rid Of Bad Smells

You should always hand wash your tent. Hand washing your tent gives you more control over the areas that need to be cleaned, especially in the cases of mold or mildew buildup.

There are a few ways you can hand wash your tent. You can either soak it in your bathtub, pitch your tent, and then use a bucket of water to wash your tent or wash it in a large tub.

Depending on what’s causing the bad smell and how dirty it is, you’ll be able to determine which option is best for cleaning your tent.

Make sure you use a soft scrubbing brush with gentle bristles or a sponge with a soft side and slightly rougher side for scrubbing your tent clean. You want to avoid cleaning materials that are too abrasive as this can damage your tent.

6. Use A Natural Detergent For A Tent That Smells

Natural detergents are not as harsh as chemical-based detergents and are unlikely to harm your tent’s fabric. Natural ingredients also have powerful bacteria-fighting properties and can remove stains and odors.

A good option is Mrs. Meyer’s natural cleaner or mild natural dish soap. Natural detergents are also better for getting rid of odors. Sometimes chemical-based detergents can cause stains or even worsen your tent’s smell.

7. To Clean A Tent That Smells, Use Tent Air Freshener

A tent air freshener is an excellent option for a smelly tent (once cleaned). Activated Charcoal Bamboo air fresheners work well because they aren’t overly scented and can trap odors. They are also environmentally friendly and a good option if you have allergies.

If you prefer an air freshener spray, the Fresh Wave eliminates strong odors, including those from pets. Most of these are easy to pack in and take with you when camping. So if you face a tent with an unpleasant smell, these air fresheners can be a quick solution to help improve the smell of your tent.

8. Air Dry Your Tent To Clean A Tent That Smells

After washing your tent, you should air dry it. Air drying ensures your tent is properly dried, and there is no chance of the tent trapping moisture inside. Your tent should only be washed on warm days to provide enough sunlight to air dry.

When air drying your tent, you should avoid leaving it in direct sunlight as this can ruin the tent’s fabric or fade the color. Some tents may have UV resistance, but nonetheless, it’s better to keep the tent out of direct sunlight.

Don't put damp tents into storage. Make sure they are completely dry before folding and putting away.
Make sure your tent is completely dry before folding it properly and storing it.

9. Store Your Tent Correctly To Avoid Bad Smells

A tent not folded up properly can be more prone to bad smells. For example, storing it in a garage can get dusty or even damp. Your tent should also never be stored if it isn’t completely dry. This will only make it smell and be susceptible to mold.

Tents should always be stored in their carry case and in a place that is dust-free, dry, and at a moderate temperature. If a tent is stored where it is too warm, it may be a perfect place for bacteria to breed.

10. How To Prevent A Tent From Smelling Bad

Cleaning a tent that smells can be hard work, and the best way to avoid this is to prevent your tent from picking up a bad smell. There are a few ways in which you can do this:

  • Always clean out your tent after every camping trip
  • Make sure you store your tent correctly
  • Make sure your tent is dry inside and out before packing it away
  • Aim to wash your tent at least once every season
  • Re-waterproof your tent to prevent water from getting in and to the extent the usability of your tent
  • Avoiding keeping or eating food in the tent
  • Leave shoes and other items that attract dirt outside of the tent


How Do You Get A Musty Smell Out Of A Canvas Tent?

The best way to get a musty smell out of a canvas tent is to use white vinegar. First, pitch your canvas tent. Next, add vinegar to a spray bottle and spray the entire tent. Let it sit for a few minutes. The musty smell is likely due to the mold and mildew trapped in the canvas fabric of the tent.

Next, you’ll want to fill a bucket with warm water and gentle dish soap. Next, use a scrubbing brush and scrub the entire tent, making sure to cover all the areas sprayed with the vinegar solution. Finally, wash the whole tent with plain water to rinse the vinegar solution and the dish soap.

Allow the tent to air dry. If the tent still smells musty, you may need to use a steam cleaner to clean your tent or vinegar and baking soda solution to clean your tent again.

Can You Frebreeze A Tent?

If your tent has a mild smell and you have Frebreeze on hand, you can Frebreeze a tent. Frebreeze works well in eliminating odors; although it’s mostly for home use, it should be safe to use on your tent.

It is, however, recommended that you first check the care guidelines for your tent. It should state which products are safe to use on your tent and won’t damage the material.

Environmentally friendly products are best to use on a smelly tent both for you and the tent.
Using natural products to clean a smelly tent is better for you and the environment.

Taking Care Of A Tent Post Cleaning

Taking care of a tent after it has been cleaned is one of the most overlooked practices of owning a tent. However, once you’ve cleaned your tent, there are a few extras you can do to keep your tent in good condition.

Seam Sealing

If you’d like your tent to last a while longer and protect it from retaining moisture, you can add a seam sealant to your tent’s seams. You can use a sealant to lightly brush some sealant onto your tent or a spray bottle to spray each seam of your tent. This will make the seams more robust and more resistant to water.

It’s essential to check that the sealant can be used on your tent before sealing the seams and causing damage to your tent.

Spray For Bugs

Permethrin is an excellent product for protecting your tent from bugs. It usually comes in a spray bottle and can be sprayed all over your tent once cleaned to help repel bugs. It’s very similar to a natural insecticide and is odorless when dry.

This treatment particularly comes in handy when it is summer and mosquitos are everywhere.

Waterproofing And UV Protection

You can use waterproofing products on your tent that provides a waterproof coating and UV-resistant layer. Nikwax and Scotchgard are excellent products for waterproofing, but Nikwax offers both waterproofing and UV resistance.

Author at Wilderness Redefined camping website

James has been escaping to the outdoors for as long as he can remember. This first started in family camping trips but soon turned into adventure camps and hiking through the Scottish Hebrides. Now he has turned towards trying to make camping more comfortable and accessible.