After a stressful week at work, it’s finally time to take a break from reality by breathing in the fresh camping air.
You start to pack your gear: the food, the clothes, the sleeping bag - hmmm - what else to grab? Oh yeah, the tent.
But, as soon as you get within noseshot of the shelter, your nostrils are stung by a pungent odor that could make an overcrowded morgue smell like fresh wildflowers.
Is that… is that honestly your tent?
Unfortunately, probably so.
While your tent may appear clean to the naked eye, there are several smelly contaminants that have made their home in within the fibers of the fabric, emitting a putrid, funky aroma. Don’t make a stink though.
Simply rise above the noxious scent as I’ll teach you how to clean a tent that smells.
What's Causing the Stink?
Before we scrub deep into the different tent cleaning methods, you should learn a little about the different contaminants of the outdoors and how they look (and smell). That way, you’ll have a better idea of how to approach the de-stinking process.
Dirt and Grime
Most of the time, dirt and grime can be visually seen. While these contaminants may not be the main source of your tent’s foul odor, it’s important to remove them from the shelter to ensure the material doesn’t wear.
Mold and Mildew
These two fungi can be a serious issue if not dealt with in a reasonable timeframe. Tents containing these contaminants typically smell musty and stale.
You probably don’t want to dive into the science behind these smelly organisms (if you do, they are called Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds), but you should know that the spores from the fungi can spread into your home and cause harmful side effects if not dealt with.
Polyurethane Breaking Down
While we won’t cover exactly how to treat this issue today, it’s important to recognize that the polyurethane coating on most tent rainflys tends to breakdown after several years.
UV light can break down the polymer, giving it a nasty vomit or ripe urine smell (it smells just as disgusting as it sounds). If your tent smells like someone just tossed their cookies, talk to the manufacturer.
4 Ways to Thoroughly Clean Your Tent
There are several techniques to disinfect and de-odorize your shelter. Here I've listed some common ones by order of efficiency. Most of the time you only need one or two techniques, but feel free to go through all the steps if you really want your tent to smell factory fresh.
Do not employ any of these treatments before consulting the manufacturer’s recommendations (usually listed in the manual that I always throw away) as it may damage your tent and/or void the warranty.
Camper's Tip: Mesh panels on tents and washing machine DO NOT mix, no matter what the manufacturer says.
1. Let Your Tent Dry and Air Out The Odors
Before you go breaking out the sponges and soap, it’s time to air out the tent by hanging it in a well-ventilated area.
Typically, I use a clothes line, but if you don’t have one, spread the fabric over the backs of four chairs, or something similar, so that air can move freely around the shelter.
Ensure all of the forest debris is out from the tent and let it sit for a 2-3 days. Many times, the putrid odor will simply waft away in the breeze.
If you've just washed your tent, use this method to completely dry it off. When you think it’s dry and ready to go, wait one more day. This is because any moisture build-up in the tent can lead to mildew, and then you’ll have to repeat the process all over again.
2. Quick Scrub to Clean Dirt and Grime
Pitch the tent. (Trust me, it's a lot easier to clean this way.)
Use a mixture of cold-water and gentle, unscented dish soap, to scrub any particularly dirty surfaces with a non-abrasive sponge.
Once you have ensured that you reached all of the fabric, breakdown the shelter and leave any pole supports, stakes, and accessories off to the side.
Let your tent dry thoroughly before storing it! (See #1 on this list.)
Camper's Tip: Always use unscented products when cleaning your tent as lingering perfumes may attract bugs and larger unwelcome visitors in the wild.
3. Warm Wash to Get Rid of Mold
Fill up a bathtub or kiddie pool (I prefer the latter to keep the stink outside my house) with lukewarm water and unscented soap.
Unzip all the tent’s doors, pockets, etc. and soak it in the pool for ten minutes. Then fully drain the filthy water.
To rinse, fill the tub back up with clean water, and drain. Repeat the process until all soap residue is gone.
Again, let your tent dry thoroughly before storing it! (See #1 on this list.)
Camper's Tip: Some campers have had success using a 2:1 mixture of vinegar and water or lemon and water. Again, be wary of your manufacturer's instructions if you decide to go this route.
4. The Mirazyme Odor Killer Bath
Soap (or your homemade vinegar mixture) may not always kill the mold and mildew spores that lie dormant in your tent.
In addition to handwashing, you may want to order a specialized enzyme cleaner. One of the more popular products among the camping community is McNett Mirazyme Odor Eliminator.
This cleaner works to kill odor-causing bacteria, mold, mildew, and algae through a unique combination of enzymes and microbes. I have used Mirazyme before, and while I was skeptical of it’s chemicals possibly eating through my tent’s fabric, it worked like a charm. Also, it’s biodegradable and environmentally-friendly (although you should wear proper gloves while handling).
To dilute the concentrated solution, simply add half-an-ounce of the enzyme cleaner for every 20-gallons of water. You might want to perform this during the soaking step of the handwashing method, or it’s possible to spray the solution while you are spot cleaning.
Camper's Tip: In addition to tents, you can freshen-up any smelly camping clothes with enzyme cleaner, especially ones that are too fragile for the washing machine.
Once you’ve finished slaving away for several days to eliminate that nasty tent musk, you probably are ready to stuff it away in the closet until the next time you venture into the outdoors.
Yet instead of calling it quits, consider a few additional techniques post-clean to increase the life expectancy and quality of your shelter.
Seam sealing is more of an art than a science, so we’ll get into the details in a different article, but basically, you use either a spray can or brush (depending on your sealant), and cover every sing sewing stitch in the tent. Although, it’s important to note that seam sealing products can be specific to different types of fabric, so as I always say, consult the manufacturer before applying.
Along with the seams, you might want to waterproof your entire tent and rainfly. I prefer to use Nikwax Tent and Gear Solar Proof as opposed to other brands because it is inexpensive and easy to obtain. Not only will it coat the tent in water-resistant layer, but it will also impede UV light from damaging the any fabric.
Rare Bug Treatment: Permethrin
Bugs bugs bugs - mosquitoes, flies, fruit flies, bees, and especially dangerous ticks I absolutely hate bugs in my shelter, which is why I always always always (did I say always enough) treat my tent with Pemethrin after I clean it.
When applied to any tent fabric or clothing (not recommended for underwear or socks), this chemical repels any and all insect pests. While the application only last six weeks, if your are planning another trip soon, it can be a life saver.
If you choose to bug bomb your shelter, read the application directions carefully and always wear the proper personal protection.
Cleaning your stinky tent can be a hassle, but it’s essential if you want to increase the longevity of your shelter. If airing it out doesn’t work, apply the handwash method and perhaps give it a nice soak in an enzyme bath.
Finally, once it’s all dry, use the opportunity to seam seal, waterproof, and bug bomb your tent. Instead of raising a stink, get rid of it!
Jay toes the line between hiking enthusiast and vagabond as he treks across the world, soaking in it’s natural wonders. When he’s not exploring the trail, he writes articles to help guide others through their outdoor conquests.