How to Clean a Tent

With summer camping trips beckoning, it’s the perfect time to spring clean your tent and other outdoor gear, especially if it’s been stored all winter. Now’s also the perfect time to take inventory of what you have and what you need—or what you may need to clean or repair to get it in shape for upcoming adventures.

Outdoor gear is an investment. One that should last a while. The better you care for your gear, the more years you’ll get out of it. High quality gear that’s treated well and properly cleaned and maintained can turn into a lifelong companion.

Cleaning a tent is fairly straightforward, and we will walk you through the process step by step. However, proper tent care actually starts at home and continues at the campground. To extend the lifetime of your tent, how you store it and use it matters greatly. You can avoid some unpleasant and unsanitary situations by knowing some of the basics to keeping your tent clean while out on your trip. Learn more about proper tent care before and after use.

Now, you may be tempted to grab a broom to sweep out the inside of your tent—or vacuum it—and then hose her down, and that is an option, but it really only works for light dirt or soil. If you have a dirty—or worse, stinky—tent, she’s going to need a proper cleanse.

Read below on how to better bathe your tent with a gentle head-to-toe scrub and, if needed, how to spot clean specific stains.

Can tents be machine washed?

No. Absolutely not. Not if you care about the longevity of your tent anyway. You do not want to put your tent into any washing machine, especially a top-loader with an agitator. Even on the most gentle cycle, this can ruin the tent by tearing the seams and stretching the material. Dryers also cause damage and are much too high-heat for tent fabrics. Similarly, tents should not be dry cleaned.

How often should you clean a tent?

At minimum, you should clean your tent top-to-bottom once per season, typically at the end of camping season. If you come into a situation that requires a deeper cleaning—like bird poo or tree sap—address it as soon as it happens.

Basic cleaning instructions for tents

Materials you’ll need:

  • Water (cold to lukewarm)
  • Liquid soap (mild, non-detergent soap)
  • Gear cleaner (REI sells several types of gear cleaner, including Nikwax Tech Wash
  • Small rag, sponge, or soft brush (like what you use to clean veggies)
  • Bathtub (or if you’re concerned about your bathroom plumbing, grab a large wash basin, kiddie pool, or the like)

Step 1: Spot clean the tent with mild dish soap. Start by individually cleaning any obviously dirty areas with dish soap. Using a soft brush, gentle sponge, or cloth and a small amount of soap, gently clean the dirty areas. The goal here is to remove any of the bigger stains before soaking the entire tent. Avoid using dishwashing liquid, detergent, or bleach.

Step 2: Soak the tent with gear cleaner. Following the instructions on the bottle of gear cleaner, prepare the tub or wash basin with cleaner and the appropriate amount of water. Unzip the tent doors and turn it inside out before immersing it into the tub. The rain fly will go into the tub, as well. Following the gear cleaner instructions, allow the tent to soak for as long as suggested.

Step 3: Rinse the tent thoroughly. Drain the tub and fill it again with clean water. Rinse the tent and rainfly thoroughly. You may need to do this several times to remove all remnants of soap.

Step 4: Dry the tent completely. Pitch the tent or drape or hang it in a cool area until it’s completely dry. Pay careful attention to the thick seams and double-stitched areas.

Pro tip: After washing, it’s a good idea to apply a waterproof treatment to reseal the seams. 

Deep cleaning techniques for tents

Nature can be nasty. There’s dirt, mud, sand, pine sap, and lots of other things that can gum up your gear. If you find yourself in need of a deeper tent cleaning, here’s how to remove excess dirt and grime.

Mildew and mold: The most popular culprit calling for a deep clean is mildew and mold, which is caused by moisture and results in the all-too-familiar wet dog smell. To combat this, try an odor eliminating enzyme cleaner like MiraZyme.

Tree sap: Sticky tree sap will come off with isopropanol or an alcohol-based product like hand sanitizer or wet wipe. After the sap is removed, rinse the area thoroughly with water before storing the tent.

Stuck zippers: To get a zipper to move more freely, use an old toothbrush to remove bits of dirt and sand that might be jamming it up. If that doesn’t work, try getting the zipper wet before brushing its teeth, which should help loosen grime. Once clean, spray it with zipper lubricant or use a food grade silicone spray.

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