How to Clean a Tent That Smells [By Expert]

You’re all excited to go camping, so you pull out your tent for the first trip of the season only to find that it stinks. Do you need to buy a new tent? Not if you know how to clean a tent that smells.

It’s a relief to know you don’t have to buy a completely new tent, but now you have some work to do.

So, how exactly do you clean a tent that smells? All it takes is a few essentials, a bit of time, and some elbow grease. Once you’re done, you’ll have a fresh smelling tent and you can get on your way.

The first step to cleaning your tent is to discover the culprit.

How to Clean a Tent That Smell

Clean a Tent

What you need to use to clean your tent depends on the source of the smell. Have you developed mold? Is your tent just musty? Did someone leave food in the tent? Your first step in how to clean a tent that smells is figuring out what the smell is. This way, you can gather the tools you need to fight and defeat the odor.

Here are some common reasons why your tent might smell:

  • Mold or mildew
  • Polyurethane (PU) decay
  • Storage
  • Food and dirt

Fortunately, you can eliminate these problems using a few common household items.

More: How to Clean a Tent after Camping Trip

How to Deodorize Tents

If your tent has been sitting in storage for a while, the first time you set it up might give you a shock. Musty smells alone are hard to live with, not to mention the perils of mold smell and mildew.

The answer to clearing both of those smells is the same. You can use:

  • Unscented dish soap and a non-abrasive sponge
  • Vinegar and lemon

Check out these tips and tricks for deodorizing your tent:

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Dish soap method

Fill a spray bottle with water and dish soap. If you use scented dish soap, the smell can be overwhelming, so you should choose an unscented brand. Spray your tent inside and out, then wipe it down with a non-abrasive sponge.

Be sure to avoid underneath your tent on the outside as you don’t want to wear away the waterproof coating. Keep in mind that the whole tent has waterproofing on it, so don’t scrub too hard

Simply wiping down your tent from top to bottom with soap and water should eliminate most smells. 

But what if it doesn’t? If dish soap doesn’t get rid of the smell or you have some tough mold or mildew to deal with, there’s another method you can use.

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Vinegar and lemon method

For stronger smells or mold and mildew, there are two choices: a spray bottle or a large container. Start with a mixture of vinegar, water, and lemon juice in a spray bottle. Try combining approximately ½ cup of white vinegar, 2 cups of water, and around 20 drops of lemon for cleaning. 

Spray the solution throughout the inside of your tent, including on the zippers, and wipe it down using a non-abrasive sponge.

If this doesn’t do the trick, take the same combination of ingredients and put them in a container that is large enough to hold your disassembled tent. You can also use an odor eliminator which is specially designed for camping gear. Allow your tent to soak for a while, then wipe it down using a soft sponge and set it back up. 

Use a clean towel and dry the inside completely. The smell should be gone. If you see any spots which still need addressing, use the spray bottle to spot clean.

Remember, you always want your tent to be completely dry before packing it away again.

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How to Remove PU Odors from Tents

The smell of polyurethane in your tent is a sign that the coating is breaking down. This can happen when you’ve had your tent for a while. The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to buy a new one just yet. You can remove the old PU coating and replace it.

Here’s how:

  • Fill a container with warm water and a few drops of dish soap
  • Allow it to soak for two or three hours
  • Mix isopropyl alcohol, water, and a couple of drops of dish soap in a spray bottle
  • Take the tent out, spray it with the mixture, and scrub the coating off
  • Set up your tent and allow it to dry completely
  • Apply a new coat of polyurethane and seam sealer
  • Use talcum powder to soften any sticky areas remaining

Keeping your tent’s polyurethane coating intact is important. After all, the PU is part of its waterproofing. The last thing you want to do is get stuck in a rainstorm on a camping trip with a non-waterproof tent.

How to Prevent Tent Odors

The methods outlined above are very effective for removing bad smells from your tent. And knowing how to clean a tent which smells is a useful skill. That being said, it’s far better to prevent tent odors in the first place.

You can’t prevent your tent from aging, but there are steps you can take which will prolong its life and prevent odors. Doing this will save you time, money, and a lot of aggravation. The good news is, it’s not difficult to do.

Dry your tent

When you’re done with your outdoors adventure, you might be ready to quickly pack up and go home. Before you do that, it’s important to allow your tent to dry completely. If you pack your tent away while it’s wet, you create an environment in which mildew and mold can thrive.

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Keep it clean

When you’re camping, you not only sleep in your tent, but you will enter and exit it several times a day. You might even have a bite to eat before bed or during a rainstorm. Be sure to remove all garbage from your tent, sweep up any crumbs, and clean off all dirt or debris inside.

Elbow room

When you buy a tent, it generally comes in a compact bag designed for easy transport. Once you’ve cleaned and dried your tent, you should fold it up and put it back in its carrying case.

But a tent needs to breathe, so you should make sure that when you store it, you don’t cram it in a tight space. Give it some space to allow for some airflow.

More: How to Keep Your Tent Dry In The Rain

How to Store Your Tent Properly

Even if you take all the precautions we mentioned above, you can still end up with a tent which smells if you don’t store it properly. You’ve learned that your tent needs to breathe, but how else can you store your tent to prevent smells?

As mentioned, you don’t want to cram your tent into a tight space. Furthermore, you should choose a place which is cool and dry. Don’t store your tent in a hot or damp area as this will encourage mold growth. Here are some places to avoid storing your tent:

  • Basement
  • Attic
  • Vehicle trunk

Instead, choose to store your tent in a climate-controlled area inside your house, such as in a closet or a finished garage.

Here are some more tips on taking proper care of your tent:

How to Clean a Tent With Mold: Solved

Taking steps to properly store and care for your tent can prevent smells and extend your tent’s life. Even with the best care, you can end up with a stinky tent, but if you follow our tips, you can eliminate the problem with a little work and some household ingredients.

Do you have any questions about eliminating bad smells from your tent? Ask us in the comments!

And remember, some dish soap, vinegar, lemon, odor eliminator, water, and a sponge can take care of most of your tent odor problems. Although prevention is the best way to fight tent odors, if you need to freshen up your tent, you now know how to clean a tent that smells. 

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