How to Clean a Tent That Smells?

You have just taken out your favorite tent from its bag, and it smells terrible? Cannot determine what might be the cause of that smell? Thankfully, you are in the right place, as we will teach you how to clean a tent that smells dreadfully. We will go through all the causes of that smell, and provide you with an action plan on how to get rid of it!

Read on further to get rid of this common problem, once and for all!

What Causes That Nasty Tent Smell?

Cause of bad tent smell

Before you clean your tent, you should know what can cause that nasty smell that makes you want to throw away your tent in the nearby trash can (please, don’t do that!). When you know the cause, you will get to the solution with much more ease. Here are the three most common pollutants that will cause that nasty tent smell:

Dirt and Grime

The best thing about the dirt and grime is that you can see them distinctively. They most definitely won’t be the MAIN culprit of the tent’s disgusting smell, but it goes without saying that you should always remove dirt and grime from your tent. It’s such a breeze to get rid of this problem, and you don’t want a small problem to become any larger, don’t you?

Mold and Mildew

You should deal with mold and mildew when you recognize them ASAP. If not dealt with, they will become a critical issue and may cause the fresh scent of your tent to not be reversible ever again. You can recognize the smell of mold and mildew by the uneasy, rotten, and damp smell.

Mold and mildew form on your tent if you don’t allow your tent to completely dry off after usage. For example, you just throw the tent into its bag without drying it off from the morning dew. Or maybe, raindrops left some water in your tent, and you forgot about it. After some time, you will feel the decaying smell because you didn’t invest time to dry off your tent. When it comes to tents, little things matter.

These two smelly organisms can be quite nasty, as they are essentially fungi. That means that they will release spores that can spread into the comfort of your home, and leave some ugly lasting impact if not kept in check.

Polyurethane Coating Breaking Down

Most tents nowadays, even the most water-resistant tents out there, tend to get their polyurethane coating on rain flys, and floors broke down. That chemical process occurs for several years, which may seem like a lot of time, right? Once you feel that smell that closely resembles puke and/or urine smell, you will know what you got into.

A Few Considerations Before You Clean Your Tent

By now, make sure that you know the cause of that sickening smell radiating from your tent. There are different methods on how to clean a tent, depending on the cause of the smell. Before we go in-depth on the different tent cleaning methods, we just want to share some tips to save you all the headaches:

Tip #1: Don’t Wash Your Tent In A Washing Machine!

Washing machine

While this method may sound tempting, and like a no-brainer choice, the reality is wholly different! The problem is, when you use a washing machine to clean a tent that smells, you will spoil the water-resistance of your tent. 

Well, maybe a counter-argument would be to simply apply waterproofing spray to your tent, and back to sunshine and rainbows, right? In the end, you will just stack up more and more busywork, and spend more money. You are looking for simple and cost-effective methods to clean your tent, aren’t you? Washing a tent that smells in a washing machine simply doesn’t come with that tagline.

Tip #2: Pitch Your Tent Before Cleaning It!

It is usually much simpler if you pitch your tent before you clean it. The tent will be tight, and you will be able to see and clean the dirty spots with much more ease! It’s best if you put it on a concrete surface, like a patio or your driveway. 

Tip#3: Avoid Using Bleach As Much As Possible!

While bleach can be very useful when you need to clean a tent from a more substantial amount of mold, it comes with less desirable outcomes. First of all, bleach incapacitates the fibers and waterproofing of the tent. Second, it contains fragrance in most cases, which may attract bugs (the worst enemies of every camper). We think it is better to opt for different means to get rid of mold from your tent.

How to Wash a Tent That Smells Terribly?

Note: before you commence to clean your tent of any malicious smell, make sure to consult with the instruction manual of your tent or contact your tent’s manufacturer. You don’t want to lose your warranty or destroy your tent because you didn’t know some vital information.

Depending on the seriousness of the cause of your tent’s smell, you may need to opt for different cleaning methods. Mind you, the methods are not very difficult, and are really easy to follow! So, let’s jump into the methods on how to clean a tent that smells!

Method #1: Dry Out The Nasty Smell

Before you start scrubbing your tent, you must dry it out first. Maybe it will get rid of all the odor that plagued the tent. Before you dry out your tent, make sure to remove all the debris that may be inside it.

Then, make sure to hang the tent in a well-ventilated area. For example, you can utilize a clothesline, or spread the tent fabric over a few chairs. The rule of the thumb is that enough air should flow through the tent fabric, so you can get even more creative with the placement. Tents for stargazing are easy to ventilate as naturally their build and materials feature loads of fresh air and ventilation. If you’re constantly moving, then getting one of these tents might be a great option.

When you’ve spread out your tent to dry, let it sit in that position for at least 2 or 3 days. In most cases, the nasty smell will vanish in the fresh air! If the tent is dry, make sure to leave it hanging for one more day. Why should you do that? Sometimes, mildew can form from the moisture build-up if the tent is not completely dry and fresh. You want to avoid that by all means!

Note: make sure to utilize this method after you’ve washed your tent so that it completely dries off!

Method #2: A Quick Scrub For Cleaning Dirt And Grime

To clean your tent from dirt and grime, all it needs is a quick scrub. Before you start scrubbing, make sure that your tent is pitched! 

For this method, you will require a mix of cold water and gentle dish soap (you can use the cheapest dish soap if you want, it doesn’t matter), and a nonabrasive sponge or cloth. Make sure that the dish soap has no fragrance, so it doesn’t attract the nasty bugs.

After you meet all the requirements, just scrub away! When you are sure that you have cleansed all the dirt and grime from your tent, dismantle it and separate the stakes, poles, and other accessories from the fabric. Then, you should dry your tent, as we showed in Method #1 above.

All-Natural Method: If your tent is capital D dirty, you may be better off with an all-natural tent cleaning method! For this method, the best way to clean your tent is to make an all-natural mixture that is sure to destroy that nasty dirt and grime! To make this mixture, you will need to mix:

  • vinegar
  • water
  • a fourth of a cup of lemon juice (to camouflage the vinegar smell)

Put this mixture in a spray bottle, and make sure it is 50/50 mix of water and vinegar, with lemon juice too. With this method, you won’t need to clean off the foam from the tent fabric! Then, just follow the same steps you would do for Method #2. Don’t rub too hard as you don’t want the water-resistant coating to get off.

Method #3: Warm Wash Your Tent To Banish Mold and Mildew

Getting rid of mold and mildew from your tent is incredibly easy! You just need to fill up a bathtub or a pool with warm water and fragrant-free soap. Then, unzip everything that you can in your tent, and soak it in the tub or pool for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, the water will be incredibly dirty, so you should fully drain it. To cleanse the soap from the tent fabric, refill the tub or pool again, and drain the water. Repeat the process as long as the soap isn’t gone.

Now, the tent should be mold and mildew-free! Dry the tent like we showed you in Method #1, and you’re good to go!

Bonus Method: you can utilize the same mixture of vinegar, water, and lemon juice that we mentioned in Method #2 section! You don’t need a bathtub or pool for this method to work. Just spray the mixture on the tent fabric and let it sit on the fabric for about an hour. Then, rub the tent fabric with a soft sponge or cloth. The good thing about this method is that the acid present in the vinegar and lemon juice is very effective in destroying mold and mildew spores.

How to Get Rid of the Polyurethane Coating Smell?

Note: make sure that you have a new polyurethane coating for this process!

If you have determined that your tent smell doesn’t come from dirt and grime, or from mold and mildew, it must be that your polyurethane coating is breaking down. If so, how to clean a tent that smells in a nasty way like that? Here are a few steps that you should follow to get rid of that urine/puke-like smell:

  1. First of all, remove the PU coating from your tent.
  2. Fill a tub or a pool with warm water, so that it is enough to submerge the tent.
  3. Add 5 drops of liquid soap in the water and mix these two.
  4. Submerge the tent and let it soak inside for 2 to 3 hours.
  5. During the soaking time, create a mixture of isopropyl, water, and a few drops of soap. Ideally, put this mixture in a spray bottle, or in a bowl.
  6. After you remove the tent from the submerged water, rub it gently with a mixture you made in a previous step. Keep a towel nearby to scrub off the unwanted residue.
  7. Pitch your tent so that it can dry completely!
  8. Apply a new polyurethane coating inside the tent floor or/and tent fly. Dry the tent for at least 24 hours.
  9. When the tent is fully dry, make sure to trickle it with baby powder (or talcum powder) to remove all the stickiness from its surface.

If you followed all of these steps, you have successfully got rid of the nastiest tent smell!

How to Prevent Unpleasant Tent Smell Again?

Prevention is key, as it is far easier to prevent unpleasant smells from getting in your tent than cleaning it, time and time again. It’s up to you to become more active and take some preventive measures!

This goes without saying, but a prime thing to do is to let your tent dry thoroughly after each use. For more details on that, check out the Method #1 section.

Never store your tent if it isn’t completely dry. If you store your tent wet, it will undoubtedly get mold and mildew after some time. Keep in mind when you store your tent so that it has enough breathable space.


If you managed to get to the end of this post, we sincerely hope that you have learned how to clean a tent that smells. While this process may be a hassle, it is essential to keep your tent clean so that it doesn’t break down earlier than you imagined. And as always, prevention is critical, so don’t forget to dry your tent before you pack it for the next camping adventure!

About Antonio

I’m Antonio, a passionate traveler, and outdoor lover who’s running this website. I started this site to share my passion for camping, traveling, and bikepacking.

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