How to Clean a Tent

Yellow camping tent in woodlands

AndyMagee / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Overview
  • Total Time: 8 hrs
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Today's tents have come a long way from the original animal hides supported by tree limbs. They are water-resistant, lightweight, and easy to construct. Whether it is a pop-up tent for a backyard sleepover or a more durable tent for long treks, proper cleaning and care during and after an outing are essential to making a tent last for many years.

How Often to Clean a Tent

After every use, inspect the tent for any needed repairs and clean it well. The tent must be completely dry—even if you don't clean it—before storing it. If you are not confident about the condition of the tent before an outing, take the time to check it and clean it, if needed, before your trip.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Bucket(s)
  • Garden hose (optional)
  • Soft-bristled brush
  • Clothesline or drying rack
  • Paint brush
  • Scissors

Materials

  • Warm water
  • Unscented dishwashing liquid or mild soap
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Protective mask
  • Distilled white vinegar
  • Silicone-based seam sealer
  • Waterproofing polyurethane
  • Repair patches for fabric and mesh
  • Duct tape
  • Needle and heavy-duty thread
  • Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol

Instructions

  1. Check the Weather

    It is best to clean a tent on a day with a moderate temperature, no chance of rain, and a light breeze to help it dry quickly.

  2. Select a Cleaning Location

    When you're ready to clean the tent, select a location where the tent can be left up for several hours so it will dry thoroughly. Try to avoid locations under trees where bird droppings are more likely.

    If you can't clean it outdoors, a garage or covered carport is a good location.

    Warning

    Never place a tent in a washer—even a front-loading washer—or dryer. The mechanical action of a washer when agitating and spinning during the cycles is too severe and dryer temperatures can be excessive. Always clean a tent by hand.

  3. Mix a Cleaning Solution

    Fill a large bucket (five-gallons or more) with warm water. Add two teaspoons of unscented dishwashing liquid or mild soap. Stir the solution well to disperse the dishwashing liquid.

    Tips

    Avoid dishwashing liquid or soaps that are highly scented. They can attract insects to your tent.


    Do not use heavy-duty laundry detergents, ammonia, chlorine bleach or any harsh cleaners that could break down the weatherproof coating on the fabric.

  4. Scrub Heavily Soiled Areas

    Dip a microfiber cloth or soft-bristled brush into the cleaning solution and lightly scrub heavily-soiled areas. Do not scrub excessively, in particular on the seams or the tent's flooring, or you could damage the waterproof coating.

  5. Wash the Tent

    Once the dirtier areas have been cleaned, wipe down the entire tent with the soapy solution. If it will fit, submerge the entire tent in the bucket and gently swish it through the water for five minutes. Remove from the soapy water.

  6. Rinse Well

    Use a garden hose or fill the bucket with clean water to rinse away the soapy water. Make sure that every surface of the fabric is free of soap residue.

  7. Hang to Dry

    Hang the tent to drip dry from a clothesline or drying rack. You can also set up the tent to speed drying time.

How to Clean a Tent With Mold and Mildew

If a tent has been stored while it was damp, mold and mildew can form. Not only is mold unsightly, but it can also damage the fabric.

  1. Safety First

    If you discover mold and mildew on the tent, put on a protective mask before you begin cleaning. Mold spores are extremely harsh on airways especially for those with asthma and allergies.

  2. Check the Weather and Cleaning Location

    A sunny, breezy day is best for cleaning tents and for one with mold it is particularly important. The tent fabric should be completely dry before you begin cleaning to help prevent smearing the mold and creating more problems. The cleaning should be done outside to prevent mold spores from spreading in a home or storage area.

    Tip

    Sunlight not only speeds the drying of tent fabric, but the ultra-violet rays can also help destroy mold spores. If you can't clean a moldy tent right away, spread the fabric in the sun for a day or so to help speed the process before cleaning.

  3. Set Up the Tent

    Erect the tent in a location where it can remain until completely dry.

  4. Mix a Cleaning Solution

    In a large bucket, combine five quarts of hot water, one quart of distilled white vinegar, and one-half teaspoon of dishwashing liquid. Stir to mix well.

    Warning

    While chlorine bleach is an effective mold killer, it is too harsh for tent fabrics. Do not use!

  5. Wipe Down the Tent

    Dip a cloth or soft-bristled brush in the cleaning solution. Starting at the top of the structure, wipe down every surface. Allow excess cleaning solution to drain away.

  6. Do Not Rinse and Dry

    Do not rinse away the cleaning solution. The vinegar will help kill hidden mold spores. Allow the tent surfaces to dry completely.

Waterproofing and Repairing a Tent

Now that the tent is clean, it is the perfect time to refresh the waterproofing, if needed, and make repairs to the tent.

  1. Waterproofing a Tent

    The water-resistance of a tent is highly dependant on the type of fabric. Cotton fabric can be treated with paraffin to make it more water-resistant. Synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester are naturally more water-resistant than cotton but are still treated with a polyurethane coating or impregnated with silicon. These coatings will break down over time especially when exposed to excessive amounts of ultraviolet light and need to be replaced when water no longer beads up on the fabric and soaks through.

    If the waterproof coating is peeling off, you will need to scrub away any loose particles and wash the tent. Once the tent fabric is completely dry and in a location where it will not be exposed to blowing sand or dirt, brush on a new layer of polyurethane. Allow it to soak in and dry completely.

    Next, use a tube of silicone-based seam sealer and apply it to every seam and allow it to dry at least 10 to 12 hours.

  2. Repair the Tent Floor

    Holes or rips on the tent floor are going to allow moisture to seep in and ruin your sleep. Small holes can be repaired with an adhesive patch. Make sure the surrounding fabric is clean, free of dust and dirt, and dry. Allow at least 30 minutes for the adhesive to set before walking on or using the area.

    For longer rips, use duct tape and a sealant. On the outside of the tent, line up the edges of the tear as closely as possible and apply the tape over the rip. On the inside of the tent, apply silicone sealant to the rip and allow it to cure for 10 to 12 hours before using.

  3. Repair a Ripped Tent Seam

    If you discover the rip before your outing, you can repair it yourself or take it to a professional tent repair company. To repair it yourself, use a heavy-duty thread like buttonhole thread or thin fishing line and a needle to sew the seam back together. Then use seam sealant to coat the repaired area.

    For a quick fix, use duct tape to patch the seam on both the inside and outside of the tent. Applying a bit of hot air from a hand-held hair dryer will help the duct tape adhere more tightly.

  4. Repair a Ripped Tent Wall

    To repair a rip in wall fabric, dip a clean cloth in some isopropyl alcohol to wipe down the inside and outside of the tent. This will remove dust, dirt, and oils that could prevent patches from adhering to the fabric. Allow the alcohol-treated area to dry completely.

    If the rip is small, use an adhesive patch cut to fit the affected area. There are mesh repair patches available for mesh areas of the tent. For longer rips, place the tent on a flat surface so the tear is flat. Cut duct tape to the correct length. Bring the edges of the tear together and apply the tape. Repeat the process on the other side of the fabric and apply silicone sealant.

How to Store a Tent

When you're leaving a campsite, allow the tent to dry completely, if possible. Fold the tent into thirds along the longest axis and then roll the tent tightly working out air pockets as you go. This will prevent excessive stress on fabrics and seams.

At home, unfold the tent and make certain that it is dry. If it smells musty or feels damp, it should be cleaned and dried. Fold the tent and store in a fabric bag so that the fabric can breathe. Store in a space with a dry, moderate climate.