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How to Clean a Tent That Smells

One of the things that can easily ruin your camping trip is a smelly tent. While dirty tents are usually smelly, most smelly tents may look clean but they emit a funky, putrid smell that is certain to deter you from having a goodnight sleep.

What do you do when your tent starts to smell bad? Throw it away and buy a new tent? Absolutely not! Knowing how to remove bad odor from a tent is not as impossible as you may think. Follow these simple directions to get your tent odorless and fresh.

Why Do My Tent Smell?

Before we dive into ways of getting rid of that awful odor, let us take some time to under why tents seem to acquire bad odors over time. That way you will better know how to de-stink them.

Mold and Mildew

Fungi are the major cause of bad odor in tents. The stale and musty smell resulting from fungi can also cause considerable damage to your tent if you don't deal with it quickly. The spores that come from fungi can enable the fungi spread to your home. They also have harmful side effects.

Both mildew and mold are the most common fungi problem that most people with tents face.

Dirt and Grime

Dirt and grime are easily noticeable. While they may not always directly make your tent smell bad, they are conducive to the growth of fungi. In addition, they exacerbate the wear and tear process of the tent.

Polyurethane Break Down

The polyurethane coating found on most tent rain flies eventually breaks down after several years of use. This causes the tent to give off a foul odor similar to urine or vomit. Natural conditions such as rain and direct sunlight (the ultraviolet light component) will cause polyurethane to deteriorate faster leading to this putrid scent.

There is little you can do about this smell. You can prevent this by taking down your tent right after use, and drying it out and storing it in a cool dark dry place.

How Do I Thoroughly Clean My Tent To Remove Bad Odor?

There are many methods by which you can use to clean and remove odor from your tent. What may work for your tent, may not work for another. As such, it is important to use the method that best fits your situation. We will arrange them in order of the most common situations to more specific ones.

While some of the techniques discussed will not void your warranty or even damage the tent, others will. This is dependent on the manufacturer and the materials used in making the tent. As such, it is a good idea to check with the manual that comes with the tent before trying out the methods that involve chemical use.

Tip: Regardless of what the manufacturer’s manual says it is always a bad idea to machine wash the mesh panels on tents and the tent as a whole.

Airing out The Tent

The simplest techniques usually turn out to be the best solution. Just hang your tent to try in an airy well-ventilated area. A drying line outside is an ideal place to air out your smelly tent. This will work for tents with mild odor but no visible sign of mold, mildew or grime and dirt.

  • Start by removing all forest debris from the tent.
  • Spread it over a drying line or over the back of about 5 chairs. You have to ensure that the set up allows air to freely blow around the tent.
  • Also, if you have just washed the tent and dried it using an electric dryer, use this technique to thoroughly dry out the tent.
  • You should allow the tent to sit for about 2 to 3 days.
  • Do not remove the tent in the morning, late in the evening, or during the night. Remove it a couple of hours past noon. This will ensure that any moisture builds up during the night is absent. Even a tiny moisture buildup can cause mildew, which will negate the purpose of this exercise.

Cleaning the Grime and Dirt off The Tent

As explained earlier, dirt and grime can provide a conducive environment for the development of putrid odor. 

Follow these steps to correctly clean out dirt and grime.

  • Pitch the tent. It is easier to clean it this way.
  • Use unscented dish soap, cold water, and a nonabrasive sponge, gentle scrub off all the dirt and grime.
  • Once you are done with scrubbing, take apart the tent and separating the stakes, supports and other accessories from the fabric.
  • Follow the steps provided in the ‘Airing out the tent’ section to properly dry the tent fabric.

Unscented detergent is best since scented products produce a scent that may attract animals and bugs to your campsite. You don’t want this to happen in the wild.

Cleaning Out Mold and Mildew

Mold and mildew is another common cause of smelly tents. The method you choose to use depends on the amount of mold and mildew on the tent. If the mold or mildew isn’t much, then the same method used for cleaning grime and dirt will work. If there is a lot of mold, then bleach can prove effective, however, this option can damage the material so bleaching the tent must be the last option. A mix of salt, lemon juice, and water or vinegar and water can also work.

However, the most effective remedy for mold and mildew is using a specialized tent cleaner such as the Revivex Pro Cleaner. Start with hot water, and then use the cleaner. It is important to follow the instructions given on the instruction label of the cleaner.

Here are steps to take in ridding the tent of mold and mildew.

  • Pitch and taut the tent.
  • Using a sponge hand wash the outer part of the tent. Using a sponge on the underside of the tent fabric can damage the water resistive polymer coating.
  • When using the specialized cleaners, follow the instructions that come with it.
  • When done, rinse away all soapy residue thoroughly.
  • Finally, air the tent out.

Deodorizing the Tent

Once you have rid the tent of the mildew and mold, a lingering odor may or may not be present. If the odor is still present, you will need to deodorize the tent. A brand name odor remover will usually do a great job of removing the odor. Here are the steps to follow when deodorizing the tent.

  • Fill a tub or an inflatable pool (any small above ground pool will do) with just enough water to submerge the tent.
  • Add the odor remover according to the instructions given.
  • Submerge the tent. Ensure all flaps and zippers are open.
  • Keep the tent submerged for as long as the instructions say. This should be about 5 minutes.
  • Lastly, air dry the tent.

Odor eliminates work best if you submerge the tent right after mixing it with water. Therefore, avoid using pre-mixed solutions as well as older mix.

When air drying the tent after using the odor remover, avoid drying the tent under direct sun. A cool airy environment will suffice. The longer it takes the tent to dry, the more effective the odor remover will be.

Soaking a tent can cause the polyurethane coating that makes the tent waterproof to break down. As such, it is important not to soak for longer than 5 minutes. When the polymer coating breaks down, it gives off a foul odor which cannot be fixed using an odor remover. As you can see, an odor remover is not a solution to be used repeatedly.

How Do I Prevent Tent Odor?

Getting rid of tent odor can be a worrisome task that takes time to accomplish. The best solution is to prevent the odor in the first place. After you have gotten rid of the odor, you must ensure it stays odor free. By following these 3 simple rules, you can have your tent odorless and prolong the tent’s lifespan.

  • Air dry the tent as soon as possible. It is not advisable to wait for days and even weeks before air drying your tent after use. It can be tempting to postpone this drying it out but it’s a bad idea to do so. When you get home from a trip, try to air dry it as soon as possible. This will help prevent the growth of mold and mildew.
  • Don’t store the tent is a damp place. Dampness encourages the development of mildew and mold. You should store the tent in a cool dry place away from direct sunlight.
  • Give the tent room to breathe when you store it away. The place where you store the tent should be well ventilated.


Cleaning out a smelly tent will not only prolong the lifespan of your tent, but it will also make your camping experience a pleasant one since no one enjoys being in a smelly tent. To summarize, when your tent is smelly - air dry it; if that doesn't remove the odor, hand wash it; if that doesn't work, use a brand name specialized cleaner and odor remover.

Once the tent is dry, make sure the odor does not return by taking preventive measures.