Tested Tips For How To Clean A Tent That Smells

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Do you have moldy smell in your tent? Would you like to know how to clean a tent that smells? You are in the right place.

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After doing all the reading on how to sleep comfortably in a tent, the last thing that you want is a musty moldy smell assaulting your nostrils in the middle of the night.

But musty and moldy is an understatement. Most tent owners have reported puke-like smells from their tents.

The puke smell is most likely caused by the degradation of the polyurethane coating that is used for waterproofing the tent.

With that nugget of knowledge, you can now see that knowing how to clean a tent requires you to know more than just the obvious.

Well, sleeping in a tent will never be as comfortable as sleeping on your comfy queen or king bed at home. However, it had better come as close as possible. After all, that is why we even carry camping air mattresses with us, to bring a home away from home experience.

If you are reading this and you are thinking like, well, this can never happen to me, well, you are wrong.

If you are a true camping enthusiast, you will have to contend with some funny tent smells at one time or another. You see, many things can cause this smell.

Thankfully, there are many products for tent cleaning. In fact, many of these products are specifically aimed at getting rid of smell from your tent.

Thus, if you have been finding it hard to sleep in your tent lately because of the musty and unpleasant smells, there is a respite for you.


General tips for how to clean the tent

This applies to all tent cleaning tasks, not just when you want to clean a tent that smells.

  • Brush off mud, if there is any
  • Brush off loose dirt such as leaves, grass blades and sticky dirt
  • If the tent has dirt in spots, you can clean the spots only
  • If the tent is dirty almost all over, you should clean it in a bathtub
  • Dry the tent thorough, first one side and then the other
  • Reapply your polyurethane coating if you need to
  • Take the tent to storage to wait for the next camping adventure


If you are in a hurry, at least stay long enough to see the short video below, about how to clean a dirty tent:



How to clean a tent that smells – what makes a tent smell?

Lots of things can make a tent smell nasty. You cannot start cleaning until you identify the cause of the smell. But we have already said that …

In this section, we are going to roll up our sleeves, and get reaaaaaaaaally dirty. We are going to clean a smelly tent.

Find out what makes a tent smell

When you are done with camping for the year, that is, somewhere in fall or early winter, you have to clean your tent and then put it in storage. Until next spring.

Surprise! Surprise! When spring comes, you go get your tent. And a nasty smell hits you. It is important to know what causes the nasty odor so that you can use the right cleaning procedure for it.

Polyurethane breaking down

When the polyurethane coating of the tent starts to break down, it causes an ammonia odor, or a puke smell that can make the tent totally uninhabitable.

If you establish that the smell is coming from the tent PU breaking down, you need to have a plan about how to get rid of it, apply a fresh coat and be done away with the smell.

Mold and mildew

Mildew and mold are also another cause of bad tent smell. These two occur due to the presence of moisture. It could be that you did not dry the tent very well when you were storing it or it could have contacted moisture in storage.

When you store the tent in a place that has too much moisture, you run the risk of the tent developing mold and mildew. Both will cause a musty smell.

Mold and mildew are caused by fungus. Most of the time, if discovered early, the fungus can be removed with just warm water and soap if it is not too established. However, if it is too established, other methods will have to be used.

Food and drinks spills

If there have been spills of one sort or another, it can cause different types of smells on your tent. That is why it is important to clean your tent and dry it very well before use. Just as rotting food will develop a nasty rotting smell, so will food spills on your tent.

Storing the tent when it is dirty

Another thing that makes the tent to smell is when you enter the tent with your shoes, when you have come from outdoor hiking. You can bring in moisture from outside. You may also bring in leaves and grass from outside.

Do not store the tent when it is dirty. Always make sure you clean it and allow it to dry completely. That way, when it develops a nasty smell, you will know that it is coming from mold and mildew, or polyurethane degradation.

You can then go straight to finding the solution for how to clean a tent that smells when you know what the cause of the problem is.


How to Clean A Tent That Smells From Polyurethane Break Down

When the polyurethane coating of the tent starts peeling, it will create a nasty puke smell. You want to avoid this as much as possible.

Find the affected area

If you get the right information, they will tell you that the polyurethane coating is applied on the interior of the tent. It is also applied on the interior side of the rainfly.

Soak the tent for some time

The good thing is that you do not have to clean the whole tent. Once you have identified the area where the tent has peeled. You can then soak that area in warm soapy water for a few hours. You are doing this so that the coating can soften up and become easier to peel off.

Remove the peeling Polyurethane

After soaking the tent for a couple of hours (recommended 3 hours), you can then peel off the PU coating. It should be quite simple to do that. However, if the PU coating proves to be too stubborn to peel off, you can use alcohol (isopropyl), which is also going to sanitize the area.

That should do the job of getting rid of the smell. When the tent is completely dried, apply a new coating of polyurethane on the affected area. You should follow the instructions of the polyurethane manufacturer.


Cleaning the tent to get rid of mold and mildew smell

The first thing that you ought to do is pitch the tent in your backyard so that you can clean it easily. That way, you can access all the spots that you need to clean.

How to clean tent with soap and water

Mold and mildew can be cleaned with hot water and soap. However, make sure you do not use scented soap because the scent attracts rodents and bugs. If the mold has not spread to a big part, just soap and water is enough.

Cleaning serious mold and mildew

If the fungus has spread to a bigger part and it is has been there for some time, you would need to use a more active cleaning approach.

It is recommended to use salt, vinegar, water, lemon juice and water solution. Just spread the solution on the affected places on the tent and that will do a perfect job. You can let it soak for some time so that it gets to the mold inside the fibers.

Do not scrub too roughly

Be gentle with the tent. Do not scrub too roughly because you could damage the tent. Once you have let the vinegar/lemon/salt/water solution soak into the fibers, you should find it easy to clean that affected part.

Avoid using chemicals to clean the mold and mildew

It is very important that you do not use harsh chemicals to clean your tent. Just make your homemade cleaning solution at home and use that.

Harsh store-bought chemicals can damage the polyurethane coating of the tent. The last thing that you want is to have the waterproofing layers of the tent affected by the harsh chemicals. It might start letting in water.


How to clean a tent in a washing machine

This is a very controversial subject. Some resources say that you should only hand clean your tent. You should never run the tent through a washing machine.

However, some resources also say that you can run the tent in the washing machine under the slow run setting two times in its lifetime.

You should check the instructions of the manufacturer about cleaning and maintaining the tent. Follow the instructions to the letter, but also make sure that you trust your own experience. If you have never cleaned any of your tents in a washing machine, do not start. Just clean it the slow, traditional way.

The most important thing is to ensure that you keep the tent clean all the time before you can store it. You can also make a habit of checking it when it is in storage from time to time.


How to clean a dirty tent thoroughly

As we said, dirt can also give your tent a nasty smell. That is why we are advised to clean the tent before storing.

Depending on where you were camping, your tent can require just some light cleaning, or it could require some thorough cleaning.

When you want to clean your tent thoroughly to get rid of all odor, you may be tempted to toss it in a washing machine. However, that is not quite the thing to do.

Just pitch your tent. That way, it will be easy to see the dirtiest spots so that you can concentrate more effort there. It will also be easy to dry it.

Mostly, you will need soap and water. You should avoid using scented soap because it attracts insects, bugs and rodents, which may in turn attract snakes. They could dent holes into your tent. You will also need a soft-bristled brush to scrub the tent in case there is grease and grime.

You may also find out what waterproofing solutions are available on Amazon.com that can enhance the waterproof ability of the tent. Buy a good one and use it to clean your tent.

Use warm water for cleaning the tent. You can start with one side and then turn the other side. Put more effort on the dirtier spots or on the places that have stuck dirt.

It is best to clean the tent when all the zippers are fully zipped. If the tent is both dirty and odorous, just get a good enzyme cleaner solution. There are many online and even in the local stores.

To enjoy a faster cleaning job, you can clean your tent in a bathtub. Just fill it with warm water and use natural dishwashing soap. You may add the enzyme based solution for odor elimination into the tub. Soak the tent inside and it stay for several minutes before you can hang it out to dry.


Hang the tent to dry the right way

After cleaning the tent, you will need to hang it up to dry. It is best to spread it over a tree, or hang it on a clothesline.

Once the first side is dry, turn it over to the other side. Also make sure the zippers dry completely. At the same time, you may even use a tent fan to help spread dry air faster around the tent.

If the weather does not allow the tent to dry up completely in a day, you can take it out the following  day. Under no circumstances should you store a tent with even an iota of moisture.



You have seen everything there is to know about how to clean a tent that smells. However, it is much better if you can prevent the tent from developing any odor in the first place. Start by keeping your wet camping boots outside the tent.  Also, when you make coffee for camping, do not spill any on the floor. The same applies to food.

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