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Tent Cleaning 101: How to Clean a Tent for Longevity + Care Tips

Discover essential tips on how to clean a tent, maintain its durability, and prep for your next adventure. Follow this step-by-step guide!

Tent set up on sandy ground with backpacking and camping gear strewn about site

Learning how to clean a tent properly can save you from unexpected woes on your next camping trip. A little bit of dirt and a few stains are signs of a good adventure, but an unrepairable tent isn’t exactly a good thing.

Here at Bearfoot Theory, we know that big-ticket camping and backpacking items – like a tent – aren’t exactly cheap. So it’s extra important to spend just a little bit of time and effort keeping your gear in good working order so that it will (hopefully) last a lifetime.

Whether you’re a seasoned camper or a newbie, this post will walk you through the essential steps to ensure your tent is fresh, clean, and ready for countless more adventures under the stars.

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Why You Should Clean Your Tent Regularly

After miles on the trail and overnight stays at campsites, your tent will inevitably start to see some wear and tear.

Dirt, grime, and debris can take a toll on both the inside and outside of your tent, so it’s important to know proper tent care so you can keep heading out on new adventures.

Here are a few reasons why you want to clean your tent regularly:

  • Preserve the Material: Over time, accumulated dirt, sand, and other particles can act as abrasive agents against the tent fabric. Regular cleaning ensures these elements are removed, reducing the chances of premature wear and tear.
  • Mold and Mildew Prevention: Tents can often trap moisture, especially if packed away when damp. This is the perfect breeding ground for mold and mildew. These not only produce a foul odor but can also weaken the tent fabric, making it more susceptible to tears. Regular cleaning and complete drying can prevent these issues.
  • Functionality and Performance: A tent’s performance isn’t solely based on its ability to stand, but also on its zippers, seams, and ventilation systems. Dirt and debris can jam zippers, causing them to malfunction or even break. Seams can also get clogged with dirt, compromising their waterproofness.
  • Maintaining Waterproof Qualities: Over time, dirt and grime can erode the waterproof coating of a tent, making it more permeable during rain showers, which is not good… Regular cleaning helps to preserve this coating and offers an opportunity to reapply waterproof treatments if/when needed.
  • Make for a Better Camping Experience: A clean tent equates to a more pleasant camping experience, right? It’s not just about comfort but health as well; sleeping in a tent that’s free of allergens, mold, and dirt ensures you wake up feeling refreshed and ready for your next adventure!
  • Prolonged Tent Lifespan: Just as you’d service a car to extend its lifespan, regular tent cleaning makes sure you get the most out of your investment. By preserving the tent’s material and functionality, you ensure that it serves you faithfully for many trips to come.
  • Preserving Nature: A clean tent means you’re less likely to transfer invasive species from one location to another. By cleaning your tent, you remove seeds, insects, and other organic material and help prevent the spread of non-native species to vulnerable ecosystems.

When to Clean Your Tent

While it’s tempting to just pack away your tent after a trip and forget about it until your next adventure, doing so can compromise its durability and lifespan.

Knowing when to give your tent a thorough cleaning can make all the difference.

Here are the crucial moments when you should consider cleaning your tent:

  • After Camping in Harsh Conditions: If you’ve camped during a rainstorm, in very dusty areas, or by the beach where sand and saltwater can cling to the fabric, it’s wise to clean your tent before storing it.
  • Post Long-Term Use: After an extended camping or backpacking trip, especially if you’ve set up your tent for several days or weeks in one location, accumulated dirt and debris can become an issue.
  • When Storing for Extended Periods: If you know your tent won’t be used for a while, give it a thorough cleaning. This ensures that any hidden moisture or organic materials (like tiny leaves or seeds) don’t lead to mold growth or lingering odors.
  • Visible Dirt and Stains: Even after a seemingly calm camping weekend, your tent might have bird droppings, tree sap, or other stains. These should be spot-cleaned promptly to prevent them from setting and becoming more challenging to remove later.
  • After an Accidental Spill: Whether it’s a spilled beverage, food, or any other liquid inside the tent, it’s essential to clean it up immediately to prevent attracting wildlife and avoid potential mold growth.
  • Odors and Mustiness: If you detect any unusual or musty odors when you unroll your tent, it’s a sign of bacteria or mold growth. A comprehensive cleaning can address this before it gets worse.
  • Before a Big Trip: If you’re gearing up for an important or long-term adventure, cleaning your tent in preparation will ensure a more comfortable experience. A pre-trip cleaning can also allow you to inspect your tent for any damages that might need attention like tears or holes in the mesh.
  • Seasonal Cleaning: Even if your tent hasn’t seen much action, it’s good practice to clean it at least once a season. This routine care keeps it in optimal condition and ready for spontaneous trips!
Tent and sleeping pads set up on sandy beach in Canyon with river running through it and tall canyon walls on either side
Camping in harsh conditions – like trips that involve sand and water – will require more regular tent cleaning

Keeping Your Tent Clean & Well-Maintented in the First Place

First, let’s start with some simple tips to help keep your tent clean and lasting long:

  • Pick a shady spot to pitch your tent, especially if you’ll be there for a few days or more. This prevents the sun’s harsh UV rays from damaging it over time by breaking down the fabric.
  • Open the vents and windows to aerate the inside of the tent and provide better circulation. This will dry out any stagnating moisture that is clinging to your tent walls. If you are camping in wet, humid conditions you may need to do this more often to prevent mold.
  • Avoid wearing shoes inside your tent.
  • Use your tent’s footprint, a tarp, or a large cloth to layer under your tent while camping to protect the bottom.
  • When setting up your tent, look out for twigs, rocks, or sharp edges that could puncture your tent.
  • Brush the inside of your tent floor to remove dirt and debris daily. This is especially helpful if you camp with a dog.
  • Always pitch your tent far enough away from a campfire or open flames to prevent accidents.
  • Don’t leave food in your tent while you’re gone or a critter could chew through the material.
  • Inspect your tent for any holes, rips, tears, and damage as catching small holes early on can prevent them from becoming bigger holes quickly
  • When packing up your tent, shake out your tent to remove any remaining dirt before removing the poles. Never pack your tent with anything left inside of it.
  • When packing your tent, roll or fold it rather than stuffing it like you would a sleeping bag. This helps protect the materials and coatings. Don’t rush with putting your tent away.
Dog sitting in front of set-up tent at campsite in the woods

Tent Cleaning Materials Needed

To ensure your tent receives the proper care without causing damage, it’s essential to use the right cleaning materials.

Here’s a list of what I recommend using for effective and safe tent cleaning:

Mild Soap (Non-detergent)

A gentle soap like Castile or a specialized tent cleaning solution is ideal. Avoid strong detergents or dishwashing liquids with perfumes as they can damage the tent fabric and its waterproof coating.

Bearfoot Theory Pick

Nikwax Tent & Gear SolarWash

This gentle cleaning solution is designed to clean tent fabrics and extend the life of your gear. It’s easy to use and also adds a bit of UV protection to prevent the tent fabric from degrading in the sun.

Where to shop

Soft Sponge or Cloth

Soft sponges are perfect for general cleaning. Make sure they are non-abrasive to avoid damaging the tent’s delicate fabric.

Soft Brush

Brushes with soft bristles are useful for spot cleaning and addressing more stubborn dirt or stains. Soft brushes (or a toothbrush) are also great for zippers, which can often collect sand, dirt, or tiny particles.

You want to avoid using a brush with stiff bristles, though, since they can scratch or wear on the tent material.

Bearfoot Theory Pick

Soft Bristle Cleaning Brush

This set of brushes is perfect for cleaning tent fabrics. The bristles are soft, so they won’t scratch or abrade the material and they have a nice ergonomic shape for your hands. The smaller brush is perfect for cleaning zippers.

Where to shop

Lukewarm Water

Hot water can harm some tents’ protective coatings. It’s always safest to use lukewarm or cool water for cleaning.

Large Basin or Bathtub

A spacious container or a clean bathtub allows you to submerge and thoroughly clean larger tents.

Seam Sealer (if needed)

Over time, the sealant on tent seams can deteriorate. If you notice any peeling or if the seams are no longer waterproof, you’ll need a seam sealer to reapply.

Bearfoot Theory Pick

Gear Aid Seam Sealer

Keep the seams of your tent waterproof with this high-quality seam sealer. It’s easy to use and can also be applied to other gear like rain jackets, gloves, backpacks, and more.

Where to shop

Waterproofing Spray (if needed)

If you find that your tent isn’t repelling water as it once did, it might be time for a fresh waterproofing coat.

Look for sprays designed specifically for tents to ensure compatibility.

Bearfoot Theory Pick

Nikwax Tent Waterproofing Spray

Tents (and rain gear) lose their waterproofing coating over time, so it’s a good idea to treat the fabrics with a waterproofing spray like this one. It also adds UV protection to prolong the life of your tent.

Where to shop

Patch tape

If you find any holes or tears in your tent fabric, you’ll want to patch them up asap. This will prevent them from getting bigger and to prevent bugs and small critters from entering your tent when camping. The last thing you want is to wake up to find mouse or snake sharing your sleeping bag!

Bearfoot Theory Pick

Tenacious Tape

Tenacious tape is specifically designed to repair tent and gear fabric. It has a strong adhesive back that will stick to almost anything (make sure it’s dry) and a durable outer layer that will help prevent future rips and tears. It’s also helpful to bring with you on a backpacking trip.

Where to shop

White Vinegar and Water Solution

If you’re dealing with mold or mildew, a diluted solution of white vinegar and water can be an effective treatment.

However, always spot-test before applying to larger areas.

Towels

Towels are useful for patting down and drying off excess water after the cleaning process.

Rope or Tent Poles

You’ll want to set up your tent post-cleaning and let it air dry completely.


Step-by-Step Guide on How to Clean a Tent

Once you’ve gathered all your cleaning supplies and materials, it’s time to dive into the cleaning process!

Follow these steps to clean your tent thoroughly without causing any damage:

1. Tent Setup

  • Set up your tent in a shaded area or indoors. Make sure the space is clean and free of sharp objects.
  • Shake out any loose dirt or debris from inside the tent.
  • Remove any detachable parts like the rainfly or inner tent and clean them separately.

2. Hand wash

  • Fill your basin or wash bucket with lukewarm water and add a small amount of mild soap. If you’re using the Nikwax Tent Cleaner, you can spray it directly onto the tent fabric.
  • Using a soft sponge or cloth, gently scrub the tent’s surface, focusing on particularly dirty areas. Avoid scrubbing too hard.
  • For the rainfly and footprint, it may be easier to submerge them in the basin and gently scrub them there.

3. Spot cleaning

  • For tougher stains, tree sap, or bird droppings, spot clean using a soft brush and mild soap. Gently scrub the areas until the stains are removed.
  • If dealing with mildew or mold, use a mixture of white vinegar and water (1:1 ratio), but always do a patch test first to ensure it doesn’t damage the fabric.

4. Cleaning zippers and poles

  • Use a soft brush to clean zippers
  • Wipe down tent poles with a damp cloth to remove dirt and grime. If there’s any salt residue, clean them with fresh water to prevent corrosion.

5. Rinsing

  • Empty the soapy water and fill the basin with clean water.
  • Disassemble your tent and rinse it thoroughly by submerging it in the clean water. Gently agitate it to remove soap.
  • Repeat the process until all soap residues are removed. This might take several changes of water.

6. Drying

  • Carefully shake off excess water from the tent.
  • Set the tent back up or hang it to air dry completely. Ensure it’s fully dry to prevent mold growth. Avoid direct sunlight as UV rays can weaken the tent fabric.
Woman standing in doorway of tent set up at campsite
Always make sure your tent is completely dry before storing it

7. Reapplying waterproofing & sealing seams (if needed)

  • Once your tent is completely dry, check its water repellency by sprinkling some water on it. If the water beads up and rolls off, your tent is still water-repellent. If the water soaks into the fabric, you should reapply a waterproofing spray.
  • Follow the instructions on the product (like the Nikwax Waterproofing Spray) and apply it to the outer surface of the tent and rainfly.
  • Check the seams of your tent for any peeling sealant. If needed, reapply a tent-specific seam sealer following the product’s instructions.

8. Patch holes

  • Inspect your tent’s fabric, rainfly, and footprint to see if there are any rips or tears. Use a strong tape like Tenacious Tape to patch any holes.

9. Storage

  • Once your tent is completely dry and any waterproofing or seam sealing has fully cured, pack your tent loosely in a storage sack or a large pillowcase.
  • Store it in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.

What questions or tips do you have about how to clean a tent? Did anything surprise you? Leave a comment below!

Bearfoot Theory | Planning your next camping adventure? Make sure your tent is in tip-top condition before you hit the trail! Our comprehensive guide on how to clean a tent will take you through a detailed, step-by-step process to ensure your tent is fresh, clean, and ready for your next outdoor escapade. From removing stubborn stains and dirt to reapplying waterproofing and sealing seams, we cover all aspects to help you maintain your tent's durability and functionality.

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6 Comments

  1. Thanks for you blog post. I might just add that if you’re using a freestanding/semi-freestanding tent that uses poles, sometimes the elastic shock cords inside the poles get worn out and need to be replaced. Pretty simple to replace them (a plethora of tutorials on YouTube). I just replaced them on one of my tents.

  2. You got my attention when you said that you could puncture your tent if you set it up without looking out for twigs, rocks, or sharp edges. This is what exactly I failed to do when my family had a camping trip last week. I was the one who set up the tent, and I did not realize that there were broken pieces of glasses on the floor. We will be sure to have it repaired so we could use it again for our next camping adventure, and we will also take note of your tips moving forward.