Camping & Hiking

How to Clean a Tent That Smells? [Full Guide]

Camping is great because it allows you to detach yourself from the hectic life and pay more attention to the smaller things in life.

However, if the last time you used your tent was months, or even years ago, and decided to take it out now, you might be shocked by a pungent smell coming from it. There are many reasons for this.

Keep reading because I’m going to explain how to clean a tent that smells and how to avoid it happening in the future.

What Makes a Tent Smell?

tent on river

Generally, the main reason a tent produces or emits foul-smelling odors is the presence of fungi growing on the surface of its fabrics.

Although there are many species of fungi in the world, the most common kinds that grow on tents are mold and mildew.

Unlike plants that require sunlight to perform photosynthesis for survival, mold and mildew only need moisture, air exposure, and adequate temperature conditions to flourish on any surface. Tents, sadly, can yield all these terms if they are not given proper maintenance.

While tents provide refuge and a resting place when used for camping and other recreational activities, their primary function is to keep you dry and safe.

Because of this, tents are usually made of materials, such as canvas (cotton), nylon, polyester, and felt.

These fabrics are designed to harbor water and absorb it as a way to prevent leakage if it starts to rain while outdoors.

Therefore, if you don’t dry your tent adequately after using it, it will retain moisture and grant fungi an excellent habitat to grow.

Some campers might think that it is not necessary to dry their tents if it didn’t rain. However, that is not entirely true. Water is always present in the environment, but the elevated temperatures that oscillate during the day cause it to evaporate.

This evaporated water is most commonly known as humidity. When the temperature decreases at night, it is unable to remain as vapor and condenses into liquid water and remains on certain surfaces.

This is why you’re able to see water droplets in the morning, aka morning dew. Thus, your tent is able to absorb the morning dew if you don’t it dry in the sun.

Why Does My Tent Smell like Vomit?

cleaning mouldy tent

Sometimes, your tent might not have any signs of mold growing on the fabrics, but it still releases a putrid smell similar to vomit or urine.

This is due to the deterioration of its polyester urethane coating. Although tents are made with fabrics that absorb water, this does not make them water-proof.

Many manufacturers apply a special film to water-proof the outer layers and improve their water-repelling capabilities.

Polyurethane is the most common chemical used in tents for water-proofing and causes no harm in humans or animals.

However, as time passes by and your tent is exposed to constant ultraviolet rays from the sun, the coating begins to break down.

This causes your tent to lose its waterproofing characteristic but it also emits a vomit-like smell in the process.

Your tent usually only produces this smell after constant use or defective manufacturing. Therefore, the only way to completely eliminate this odor is by removing all the remaining coating on your tent and applying a new one or purchasing a new tent if you want a simple solution.

How to Clean a Tent that Smells?

You may have eliminated the mold and mildew, but your tent still has a particular smell. To thoroughly clean your tent, you must spread it out completely on a flat surface.

It’s also necessary to do this in a well-ventilated area to allow air to circulate and for faster drying.

Sometimes, you’re able to eliminate odors with a simple fabric deodorizer, but it’s not that efficient. To deodorize effectively your tent, you must immerse in water and apply a deodorizing solution. There are many Odor Eliminator brands available that you can use.

You must use about 1 ounce of the solution, mix it in the water and let the tent soak it for about ten to twenty minutes. Once again, you will let it air dry instead of rinsing it.

Some people like to add bleach, but it can potentially damage your tent. Because of this, try to find non-chlorine bleach and make a mixture using 2 tablespoons of bleach in two liters of water. Apply for ten minutes and let it dry out in the sun.

If your tent still has a strong and pungent smell, it’s probable that the stench is caused by the deterioration of its polyurethane coating.

To remove this type of odor, you must scrub off the remaining coating using isopropyl alcohol and liquid soap. Afterward, it’s pertinent to apply a new coating and sealer to make your waterproof again.

Here’s a handy video showing how to clean a tent using full of dirt and sap

How to Clean a Tent with Mold?

The cleaning ultimately depends on the amount of mold and mildew present in the fabrics. If it’s only mildew present in small portions of the tent, you can clean it with lukewarm water and dish soap.

It is not necessary to use expensive brands; generic products work well. Try to avoid scented soap that contains fragrances because it can attract mosquitoes and other insects.

Initially, you will need to wipe out the mold and mildew with a sponge or soft-bristled toothbrush.

You must try to gently brush off the mold residue of the tent because certain fabrics, like nylon and polyester, are very delicate and can be easily damaged. Afterward, you must chemically kill the fungi.

You can use specific disinfectants, like Lysol, Reviver Pro Cleaner, MiraZyme, and create a solution. Use a cup of said disinfectant and mix it with a gallon of water.

Finally, apply in the affected portions of the tent and let it dry out in the sun completely.

Certain home remedies are useful to clean mold as well, like lemon juice and vinegar. If you’re going to use vinegar, you must first place it in a spray bottle undiluted.

Spray on the affected areas and then rinse with a lemon juice solution (1 cup of salt and lemon water in a gallon of water). Let the mixture work for about an hour and then purge it with a sponge.

If the mold is too extensive, it’s best to fill a tub or basin with hot water and the disinfectant to completely drench the tent. Let it soak up to ten minutes and then take it out.

Do not rinse it off and instead let out on the sun to air dry. Once it’s completely dry, you can use a sponge to remove the remaining residue.

How To Store A Tent?

The location where you store your tent can also provide favorable conditions for mold and mildew to grow. Normally, we store our camping gear in a large plastic box in our bedroom.

Mind you, we air out the tent for at least 24 hours (or until fully dry) in the sun before loosely placing it in the box. Never store your tent for long periods inside its bag.

Try to avoid storing your tent in places with poor ventilation. This will allow evaporated water to condense easily and produce humidity.

Attics and some garages are exposed to constant sunlight during the day, creating warm and moist environments.

For this reason, fungi are more likely to flourish in your tent and other gear if they are kept in humid and warm areas.

Although mold and mildew are similar kinds of fungi, they are physically different and require specific room conditions for growth. But, it’s still possible for both of them to flourish simultaneously in the correct circumstances.

Mold is a broad term used to describe certain types of fungi, like Aspergillus, Penicillium, and Stachybotrys chartarum (black mold), that grow in humid and poorly-ventilated areas. These usually penetrate deep in the fabric, making it harder to remove.

On the other hand, mildew is a specific type of mold that germinates in warm conditions and it’s mainly white-colored. It is easier to clean because mildew only expands on the surface.

Therefore, if you store your tent in a warm, humid, and poorly-ventilated room, it will likely house both mold and mildew.

Keep in mind that both fungi can produce health issues when their spores are inhaled, such as coughing, dizziness, allergic reactions, and respiratory conditions.

Black mold is the most dangerous of them all because it can lead to pneumonia, chronic sinus infections, and fatigue. For this reason, you must always clean your tent before using it.

Camping is a thrilling experience. Your equipment must be kept in optimum condition to appreciate everything that nature has to offer.

Nathan Barker

My wife and I are huge adventure seekers! We've traveled and explored over 40 countries and want to share what we have learned on our journey. We'll be talking about everything from hiking and camping, to guides, reviews and tips that we're sure will help any avid adventurer no matter what walk of life. So relax, grab a cup of coffee and we hope you enjoy the read!