How to Clean a Tent that Smells (Updated 2023)

A person holds tent cleaning sprays in front of a tent

Does your tent smell musty and old? Have you just taken your tent out of the cupboard and it smells like old socks? Has your dog made a mess all over your beautiful new backpacking tent?

No matter the problem you’re facing, we can help.

All of the ideas presented in this guide are a general guide of how to clean a tent that smells. For specific instructions on how to clean a tent with mold or how to waterproof a tent, visit those specific articles – but check out this guide below first for some helpful tips on what (and what not) to do if you’re wondering how to clean a tent that smells. 

What you’ll need

The cleaning products you will need depends on your tent material. If you’re on a budget, you can use a mild dish soap in the place of a washing liquid. Re-waterproofing your tent is not always necessary, but I highly recommend it since cleaning the tent can wear down the waterproof coating.

Polyester/Nylon (including Silpoly/Silnylon) tents:

Canvas tents:

Other products to consider

What not to do when learning how to clean a tent that smells:

Don’t bleach your tent. Delicate fabrics like silpoly and silnylon will degrade when coming into contact with household bleach, and canvas tents will stain significantly if bleach is used.

Don’t machine wash your tent. The high heat and repeated spinning of a washing machine will degrade the fabrics of your tent, and may cause them to rip in the cycle.

Someone holds a tent inside a washing machine
Machine washing a tent (i.e. what NOT to do)

Don’t use Febreeze. The chemicals in household deodorising sprays like Febreeze will not only serve to just mask a smell, but may also damage the protective coating on the walls of your tent, degrading the materials faster.

Don’t tumble dry your tent after cleaning it. The high heat and fast spinning of a tumble dryer will damage the delicate fibres of your tent. Furthermore, the guy lines of your tent could get caught in the mechanism of the dryer’s drum and damage the machine itself – so it’s just a bad idea all round. 

1. Remove any debris from inside the tent

This is where having a freestanding (or semi-freestanding) tent like the Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL2 comes in handy. If you’ve got dust or debris (leaves etc) in your tent after a couple of nights camping, just pick up your tent, open the door, and shake all of the dust out. 

If you don’t have a freestanding tent, then I’d recommend using a dustpan and brush to pick up any debris. I wouldn’t recommend using a vacuum cleaner – the suction could get the tent’s material stuck and end up ripping the material.

2. Air dry the tent in a well ventilated space

A likely cause of your tent smelling might be that it wasn’t completely dry the last time you put it away – and that it’s started to go somewhat moldy.

If you’re certain it’s mold, you can check out our detailed guide on how to clean a tent with mold. But, just as a starting point, give the whole tent a chance to completely dry out. 

If you’ve got a washing line, hang your tent on it on a sunny day – or if not, put it in an airing cupboard until all remnants of moisture have disappeared.

3. Hand wash the tent with warm, soapy water

Having given your tent a chance to completely dry out, hand wash your tent with warm, soapy water. You don’t need to do this in a bathtub – just a large sink will do.

If you’ve got an outdoor gear-specific cleaning product like Nikwax Tech Wash, we’d recommend using that – but if not, a mild and unscented dish soap will do just fine. I used DPL Pure Liquid Soap when I washed my Gossamer Gear “The One”, which worked perfectly.

Much like the process we covered when learning how to wash a down sleeping bag, you’ll want to empty the sink after the tent’s first soak before refilling it with clean water (you might have to do this a couple of times). This will not only help to rid the tent of some more surface-layer dirt, but will ensure that no soap suds remain on the tent.

Someone holds liquid soap in hand above basin
I used this DPL Pure Liquid Soap to wash my tent, and it worked perfectly!

4. After drying, use a specialised tent cleaner

Having let your tent dry completely after hand washing it in warm water with a waterproof gear specific detergent, get ready to use your technical tent cleaner (we recommend Nikwax Solar Wash).

To apply the tent cleaner, either set up your tent completely or lay it flat out on the ground (I’d recommend doing this outside), then spray the solution evenly over the material. 

Nikwax recommends using about 50 ml of Solar Wash for every square metre of tent – so a couple of widely dispersed spurts of the liquid should be enough for each specific area you need to clean.

Once you’ve sprayed your technical cleaner onto the surface of the tent, grab a damp sponge and massage the solution around the areas. If there are some areas of your tent that are particularly grubby, rubbing the area with a soft brush will help remove stains without damaging the tents material.

This guide recommends Nikwax Tent and Gear Solarwash when learning how to clean a tent that smells
Having sprayed the specialised tent cleaner on from a 1m distance, rub it in gently with a damp cloth

5. Let your tent dry again after cleaning

Once you’ve finished these steps, your tent should be squeaky clean and, more importantly, smell like it, too!

But don’t be hasty – remember that any moisture being held on to the tent could bring back that mouldy smell. 

Before packing your tent away, then, ensure that it’s completely dry. To do this, you could hang it up on a washing line, drape it over a drying rack in the sun, or put it in an airing cupboard – but make sure that it’s completely dry inside and out before packing it away.

Specialised cleaners for polyester/nylon (including silpoly/silnylon) tents:

Different materials require slightly different solutions to clean them effectively.

For tents made of synthetic fabrics like silpoly or silnylon, we’d recommend using Nikwax Tech Wash in combination with Nikwax Solarwash.

Specialised cleaners for canvas tents

For tents made of canvas material, use Nikwax Tech Wash in combination with Nikwax Cotton Proof – a specialised solution designed to increase the waterproofing of canvas-based outdoor equipment (including jackets).

Specialised cleaners for other situations

If your tent is in a slightly more unpleasant state (i.e. if you or your poor dog has vomited all over it), we’d recommend using Revivex Odor Eliminator (previously known as Relags Mirazyme) to clean your tent – after the initial layer of mess has been removed, of course.

If your tent has developed mold, you’ve got a couple of options. Depending on its severity, you might be able to eradicate the problem (and the smell) by following the steps outlined in this article.

If the mold (and the smell) is persistent, though, we’d recommend using Revivex Odor Eliminator for this as well – it’s specifically formulated to tackle problems like mold and heavy odors. For more information, take a look at our article on how to clean a tent with mold.

6. Consider waterproofing your tent

Now your tent’s squeaky clean, it’s probably a good idea to make sure than any excess water isn’t going to come in and ruin all of your hard work.

Indeed if you have been finding that your tent isn’t quite as waterproof as it was when you bought it (i.e. you’re lying in it overnight and yes, it looks like it’s leaking), all is not lost – re-waterproofing your tent isn’t as difficult as it sounds.

There are two main areas where your tent loses its watertightness: the bulk of the main fabric itself, or the seams where the fabric is sewn (or, often in synthetic tents, taped) together.

Someone sprays Nikwax tent and gear solarproof onto a tent
Re-waterproofing your tent can help prevent future water ingress and extend the life of your equipment

To re-waterproof the main fabric of the tent, spray Nikwax Tent and Gear Solarproof (this comes in a handy two-pack along with the Solar Wash from the washing process) evenly over the surface, leave it for a couple of minutes, then wipe any excess off with a damp cloth.

Easy, right?

If you’ve got rain seeping through the seams of your tent, this isn’t too difficult to prevent, either. Ensuring that the seam is clean (and completely dry), use the brush attachment in a seam sealing repair kit (ensure that you’ve got the right one for your tent’s material) and gently squeeze the sealant along the affected area. Once complete, leave the solution to dry for about 12 hours before using the tent.

For more detailed instructions on these processes, check out our article on how to waterproof a tent.

Other steps to prevent your tent from smelling

You don’t have to clean your tent every time after using it, but there are a couple of ways of preventing your tent from smelling.

Firstly, don’t store your tent in a plastic box with a lid on when it’s not in use. This will trap any residual moisture left inside the tent and will likely lead to mold or mildew buildup. Similarly, if you have been camping in humid/damp conditions, ensure that your tent is clean and completely dry before you store it away,

Secondly, don’t cook or eat in your tent when you’re using it. Cooking smells can not only permeate the fabric of your tent, but may also encourage small critters to visit you in the night and chew through the walls of your tent to try to access your food (Trust me. I’ve made this mistake before).

Finally, when you’re out on a camping trip, don’t keep dirty equipment (like shoes or a damp backpack) inside your tent – keep them in the vestibule outside. This will ensure that the kit in question stays protected from the weather outside, as well as also ensuring that you don’t bring any dirt or unwanted debris (including damp, if it’s been raining on your shoes and pack) into your tent – which can lead to unwanted smells over time.

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