Of Mold and Mud: How to Clean Your Tent

Key Points

  • A necessary part of the camping experience is taking the time to clean a tent.

  • Know what to do, what not to do, and what products to use to properly clean a tent, so that it lasts for many years and adventures.

  • There are some guidelines to follow when camping to keep your tent clean.

Camping is a prime opportunity to connect with nature. Nothing compares to the exhilaration of climbing peaks, coming across wildlife, and pondering the passing of time. Part of the experience is going without a shower and going to bed a little dirty. Nothing gets you clean quite like a good scrub down in a camp shower. Where you sleep also needs a good washing. Yes, you need to clean a tent.

Just accept the fact you're going to be a little smelly after camping. Part of that "outdoor experience" inevitably rubs off on your camping equipment. Sleeping bags, sleeping pads, socks, shoes, and undies take on the smell of their occupants after repeated use. Perhaps because they don't give off a noticeable odor, the tent often gets left off the laundry list of items to wash. Even though you can't throw it in the washing machine with your undies, it is essential to clean a tent.

Wash Your Tent at Least Once a Year

Clothing requires frequent washing. Tents don't. In general, wash it at least once a year — more if it becomes seriously filthy on a trip.

There isn't a maximum number of times you can wash your tent, but cleaning it after every trip weakens and damages the fabric. Use your senses and your common sense. If it's the end of the camping season, wash it. If the tent reeks and mud is plastered on it, wash it.

Sometimes your senses fail you. Wash your tent at the end of the season even if it doesn't look or smell dirty.

Even though your tent may look clean, a fact of outdoor life is that your tent accumulates dirt, grime, and sweat that only worsens when you have it packed away for several months. To combat this, give it a little TLC.

There are right and wrong ways to clean a tent. Choosing the right way ensures your tent is in tip-top shape for years to come. The wrong path guarantees you are going to be making frequent trips to a tent seller near you.

The Wrong Ways to Clean Your Tent

Some of you may separate the whites from the darks when doing laundry. Others may wash a deep-purple blouse with a bleach-white undershirt — you little rebel. Either way, it's as easy as throwing your clothes into the washer, adding a dose of sweet-smelling soap, and choosing your desired settings.

Tents don't make it that easy for you. If you wash a tent the same way you wash clothes, well, there IS something magical about sleeping under the stars. Just don't whine when an unforeseen rainstorm hits.

Here are the "Thou shalt nots" of cleaning your tent.

Washing Machines and Dryers

Made of intricately woven stitches, tents have layers of fabric, and special coatings — all of which crumble beneath the wrath of the spin cycle. Never, ever use washing machines or dryers for a tent. They are a surefire way to destroy it.

Harsh Detergents or Fabric Softeners

Fragrances, detergents, dyes, and other chemicals like the poetically-named nonylphenol ethoxylates, weaken tent fabric and its waterproof coatings. If it does that to your tent, imagine what it does to your skin. Avoid these nasty products for the sake of your tent and your health.

Intense Scrubbing With Something Abrasive

Don't ever use abrasive items like steel wool to clean a tent. Meant for scrubbing stubborn stains on cast-iron skillets, these tools are no joke. A single sweep of anything abrasive across your tent inevitably leads to tears and holes. Even with gentler scrubbing devices, use them lightly.

Hot Water

Using hot water is like winning a battle but losing the war. It gets rid of those pesky bacteria but ruins your tent in the process. Don't ever use it.

Drying the Tent in the Sun

While it's okay to pitch your tent in the sun to air it out, avoid drying it in direct sunlight for an extended period. Prolonged exposure to UV rays causes the tent fabric to become brittle, fade, or crack. This damage weakens the material and reduces the tent's lifespan to shorter than a medieval peasant's.

If you want to keep your tent in excellent condition, consider the following steps.

The Best Way to Clean and Disinfect Your Tent After Camping

Cleaning and disinfecting a tent may not be the most glamorous task, but it's vital to keep your gear in good condition and protect yourself from harmful bacteria and viruses.

Choose a Good Location

Start by finding a good location to set up your tent, preferably in a well-ventilated area that's out of the sunlight.

Don't set up your tent in a cramped or dark space. This makes cleaning and disinfecting more difficult.

Remove Loose Dirt and Debris

Before washing your tent, wipe it down with a clean, damp cloth to remove any loose dirt or debris that might be stuck to the fabric. This makes it easier to get a thorough clean.

Wash the Tent

Mix a solution of warm water and a mild detergent or soap. Use a soft-bristled brush to gently scrub the tent's surface. Don't scrub too hard. A good rule of thumb: rub, don't scrub. Rinse the tent thoroughly with clean water to remove all soap residue.


Once the tent is clean, it's time to disinfect it. Adios, microorganisms!

Mix a solution of water and a disinfectant that's safe on fabrics, such as isopropyl alcohol. Apply the disinfectant solution to the tent's surface and use a clean cloth or sponge. Cover the entire tent. Let the solution sit for a few minutes.


After giving the disinfectant time to work, rinse the tent thoroughly with clean water, and remove all disinfectant residue. This is important because leftover disinfectant irritates your skin and damages the tent.

Air-Dry in a Shaded Area

Air-dry the tent entirely in a shaded or covered area, avoiding direct sunlight. Make sure the tent is completely dry before packing it away. It doesn't matter if you're going camping the next day or if you're storing your tent for a few months, make sure it is 100 percent dry. Any moisture is an invitation for microorganisms to set up shop.

Cleaning and disinfecting a tent may take a bit of time and effort, but it's necessary — and it gets rid of any bad smells that might linger from your outdoor adventure. Nobody wants to catch a whiff of body odor, even their own. Much more pleasing to your olfactory system is the sweet, piney air of nature.

An essential aspect of the tent-cleaning process is knowing what products to use and which ones to avoid entirely.

The Best Products to Use to Clean Your Tent

When cleaning a tent, use a solution that doesn't damage the fabric's waterproof coating. There are only a few good options that meet this high standard.

Mild Detergent and Soap

A mild, non-detergent soap designed for washing outdoor gear is a safe choice for cleaning a tent. Make sure to use a soap that doesn't have chemicals, bleach, or fabric softeners. A cap-full of bleach is okay to use during the disinfecting phase, but don't wash your tent with it.


Good ol' fashioned H2O. Plain water is a potent means to clean a tent. Either use a damp cloth or a hose to rinse off dirt and debris.

If you're in the middle of a camping trip and desperately need to clean your tent, soak it in a stream, lake, or river and let it dry. Do this early in the morning on a warm day to ensure it dries before bedtime.

Tent-Specific Cleaning Products

There are various cleaning products on the market specifically designed for cleaning tents and outdoor gear. These products are often formulated to be gentle on the fabric and may include ingredients like enzymes to help break down stains and odors.

There is one product out there many people consider to be a panacea — vinegar. For your tent, it's a plague.

Using Vinegar to Clean Your Tent

Vinegar is a natural cleaning solution with many purposes, but cleaning a tent is not one of them. 

Vinegar is an acid, which means it has a pH level lower than 7.0. This acidity damages the waterproof coating on your tent. Exposure to acidic substances eventually breaks down the coating, making your tent less effective at keeping water out.

The damage doesn't stop there. Acid also breaks down the fabric's fibers, making it more prone to tears and rips.

This is true for tents of every size and style. Whether you're rocking a dome, tunnel, pop-up, ridge, or pyramid tent — and anything from the circus big top to a pup tent — every tent demands you follow the same basic steps.

Cleaning a big tent is actually easier if you follow the right steps.

Cleaning a Big Tent

Some people have giant families, thus requiring lots of space when camping. Even if you don't have a big family, you might enjoy camping and sharing a tent with others. To do that, you need a big tent. It takes a bit more effort to clean a tent made for six, but some things make it easier.

Set Up the Tent

A smaller tent means less material, so it's easier to clean every part of it. Larger tents have several zippers, flaps, seams, and fabrics. Before cleaning the tent, set it up, so you don't miss a spot. This is the best way to ensure every inch of the tent is spick-and-span.

Spot-Clean the Minor Stains

If there is only one major problem area — such as a bowl of spilled broccoli cheddar soup in the corner — you don't need to clean the whole tent any more than you would clean the entire house because someone spilled wine on the living room carpet.

For minor stains, gently clean the affected area with a sponge or soft-bristled brush and a mild soap solution.

Use a Vacuum Cleaner

A vacuum cleaner makes cleaning all the debris in a large tent much easier. Start the chore by picking up large rocks, sticks, food particles, and other visible trash. Sweep to remove smaller items. To leave your tent sparkling and debris-free, go through with the vacuum to get everything else.

Do this before washing the tent.

Leave It Out to Dry Longer

Large tents take longer to dry. Leave it out longer than is normal with smaller tents. Moisture stays hidden throughout a larger tent, so let it dry for a day or two. Before storing it, go through the tent and make sure there are no wet spots.

Whether you have a tent built for a family of six or a little shelter a caveman might find primitive, mold is the one thing that ruins a tent.

Dealing With Mold

Moisture equals mold. The best way to deal with mold is never to give it a chance to grow. If it's already made a home within your tent, the steps for getting rid of it are not much different than cleaning a mold-free tent. 

Mold growth is harmful to you. Before cleaning a moldy tent, consider your health first.

Wear the Proper PPE

Before tackling mold, be sure to wear gloves, a mask, goggles, and protective clothing. Mold spores are vicious little demons. The only thing worse than mold in your tent is mold in your lungs. Avoid that by wearing PPE.

Clean the Tent in a Well-Ventilated Area

No place is better ventilated than outside. Set up your tent outside and away from others. Good ventilation ensures nobody inhales mold spores.

Brush Off Any Loose Mold With a Soft-Bristled Brush or Cloth

Rein in your natural desire to attack the nasty invader by aggressively showing the mold you are not someone the mold should trifle with. Scrubbing too hard actually releases more mold spores into the air.

Tricky little buggers, aren't they?

Inspect the Tent After It's Dry

Once you have washed, disinfected, and dred the tent, inspect it for mold. If mold is still present, you may need to repeat the cleaning process or use a specialized mold cleaner designed for use on tents and outdoor gear.

Take mold growth seriously, as exposure is potentially harmful to your health. If the mold growth is extensive or you're unable to clean the tent yourself, seek professional help or consider replacing the tent.

Regularly cleaning and maintaining your tent prevents mold growth and ensures your tent lasts as long as possible.

What is a list of five "thou shalt nots" without five "thou shalts?" Consider these tips to enjoy a lifetime of clean tents and superb camping.

Tips for Cleaning Your Tent When Camping

Certain measures ensure your tent is clean and taken care of while you're spiking out.

Don't Ever Bring Footwear Into the Tent

Boots accrue mud, muck, dirt, scat, pine needles, and other byproducts of nature. The quickest way for these substances to dirty up your living quarters is to wear your boots inside the tent. Leave the footwear outside the tent.

The best way to do that is to unzip the tent and sit inside while your feet are still out. Take off your boots and set them by the opening of your tent. If you want to bring them in, clean off the bottoms first.

Keep Food and Strong-Smelling Products Out

Food and products with a rich fragrance are a gold mine for nature's creatures. A sweet-smelling mandarin is a homing beacon for every bug in the area around your campsite.

These little pests are bad enough. Unfortunately, your new neighbors come in slightly more damaging sizes.

Small animals like rodents and raccoons follow their noses to find food and are very persistent in their quest. They chew through your tent to reach whatever smells good, even if it takes them all night.

If you enjoy an outdoor area with larger animals — like bears — please note they don't have as much patience as the little critters. Then again, they don't need it. It doesn't take them all night to chew through a tent — just a swift swipe of their massive paw.

Keep all strong-smelling items outside your tent in secure containers.

Don't Leave Your Dog Unattended

Every dog owner loves their furry little friend. What they probably don't love is when their doggo whizzes on the sleeping bag and brings whatever it just rolled on into the tent.

Keep your dog as clean as possible and prevent their teeth and claws from tearing up your tent. Designate a specific area of the tent for the dog, and lay down an extra mat for your little furry friend to lie on.

Give Your Tent a Chance to Dry Before Packing It

Condensation accumulates in even a well-ventilated tent, especially under the floor and rainfly. Dry the tent as much as possible every day before packing up and hitting the trail.

Hang your tent and fly over a branch, a bush, or a boulder to allow them to dry out, but be careful not to poke or snag the fabric.

Reseal the Seams

When you buy a tent, it usually comes with seams already sealed using seam tape to prevent water from leaking through the stitching. Seams are vulnerable areas, so inspect them periodically for damage. If you notice the seam tape starting to fail, address the issue.

To fix peeling seam tape, gently remove the sections that are coming off to avoid damaging the fabric. The tape may leave a residue on the inside of the seam. Apply a new seam sealer to the outside of the material to ensure a watertight seal. 

Use the seam sealer to also fix small holes in the tent fabric. Simply apply a small amount of seam sealer to the affected area and smooth it out with a flat tool like a credit card or plastic spatula. Allow the sealer to dry completely before using the tent.

Regularly inspecting and maintaining your tent's seams prevents water from entering. Fixing issues with seam tape or using seam sealer to patch small holes ensures your tent lasts for many camping trips to come.

DIY or Professional Cleaning?

If you're fresh from a camping trip and willing to shell out a few extra bucks for a professional to do the cleaning, then have no fear. Professional tent cleaning services are a thing.

Professional tent cleaning is more expensive than cleaning your tent yourself. It's a great option for people who want to make sure their tent is thoroughly cleaned and well-maintained.

Some tent manufacturers recommend professional cleaning services to maintain their warranty. Check with the manufacturer to see if this is the case for your tent.

A Clean Tent: Icing on the Camping Cake

You don't need a lot for a good camping trip — just ask Obi-Wan Kenobi, A.K.A. Ewan McGregor.

The famous Scottish actor once said the basic ingredients for quality camping are "A tent, a roll mat, a little bit of food, a bit of petrol in your tank, and a vague idea of where you're going, and that's all you need."

He's right. Though some of you probably want to add personal hygiene to that list.

Listening to birds, walking in ancient forests, and trekking alone are the main dessert of the camping experience. A clean, secure, and well-maintained tent is the icing on the cake.

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