How to Clean a Tent Before and After a Camping Trip

couple on a camping trip

If it’s not time to head out for your next camping trip just yet, then now is the perfect time to learn how to clean a tent and get your gear ready for the season. Tents are an essential piece of camping gear that most hikers and campers use, whether it’s to provide shelter from wind, rain, bright sunlight, or freezing temperatures. For many campers, there’s just something really satisfying about pitching a tent in the middle of the backcountry, but if you’re camping out in a tent that’s dirty, moldy, or torn, it won’t be able to provide the type of protection it’s designed to. In this guide, I’ll go over how to clean and maintain your tent, and how to perform simple, but effective repairs that will allow you to get the most out of your tent, the next time you make it to the backcountry.

Proper Care and Maintenance

A tent is designed to keep you sheltered from the wind and will keep you dry in a rainstorm. A tent that’s properly taken care of can last for several years. Many of the newest models are now equipped with the latest materials and technologies that improve their comfort, lower their weight, and improve durability.

Tents are usually made out of synthetic materials, plastics, metal, and come equipped with a type of waterproof coating. But just because the materials a tent is made out of are durable, strong, and designed to resist moisture doesn’t mean they can survive rough conditions. While a tent is designed to protect people against the elements, their durability will depend on how they’re maintained.

Like with most types of manmade items, moisture can present a big challenge. Removing moisture from a tent before storing it will help to keep the materials waterproof and strong. The same also applies to grime and dirt, both of which can weaken materials.

There are many things you can try that can help to protect your tent. Proper care and maintenance can be broken down into a few categories:

Setting Up a Tent

Preparing a campsite is the first step to proper care. Always choose a level, flat spot, and be sure to remove stones and sticks that can puncture the floor of the tent. Next, you need to lay down a footprint to protect the tent from the moisture in the ground. A footprint can be a tarp or a synthetic ground cover.

If you’re planning to keep the tent in the same spot for several days, providing shade will also be helpful. Tent fabric usually doesn’t handle UV rays well, so using the protection of trees can help prevent the material from breaking down.

It’s also important to note that a rain fly is the most UV resistant part of a tent, so it’s also a good idea to use it on sunny days. Additionally, a rain fly made out of polyester can handle UV rays better than one that’s made out of nylon.

When you’re setting the tent up, make sure you avoid whipping the poles around when you’re locking them into place. This can put stress on the metal or can even break the poles. It can also cause the poles to snap in the future. When you’re putting your tent together, make sure you take your time.

During a Camping Trip

When you’re camping, the zipper of the tent often receives the most mileage. If a zipper doesn’t glide smoothly along it can be very frustrating. However, forcing a zipper can tear the fabric and can weaken the zipper itself. Make sure when you open the tent or zip it back up that you use both of your hands. One hand should be used to stabilize the track of the zipper as you pull the zipper up or down.

If the track splits, you can fix it by running the zipper back over the track until it’s able to latch back together. In some cases, you may need to use some pliers.

Always keep shoes, boots, and any dirty gear outside the tent. Bringing in dirt and mud can corrode the tent’s material and may lead to holes in the floor. You should also store your food outside the tent, since keeping it inside can attract rodents, which can easily chew their way through the tent’s material.

Storing Your Tent After a Trip

taking down a tent

When it’s time to take your tent down, the first thing you’ll need to do is shake it out. Everything must be shaken out, including the rain fly and the footprint. If you pick up the tent with the poles still in place, this can make the job a lot easier.

Some poles will pass through a sheath on the exterior, which makes removal easier. When you’re removing these, you should push them all the way through instead of pulling them out. When you pull, it can cause the pole segments to separate, or it can cause them to get caught on the fabric. This places a lot of pressure on the shock cord. When you’ve pushed the poles through, break them down beginning in the middle. Continue to divide them into segments.

The tent must be thoroughly dried off before you place it in a carrying case or sack. Storing a tent wet will only promote mildew growth.

Once you get home you may need to dry it out again.

Deep Cleaning

Cleaning a tent is an important part of maintenance. If you’re home from a long camping trip, the tent should be cleaned once you get back home. If you use your tent for the occasional short camping trip, then the tent should be cleaned every three months.

Of course, you can’t just toss a tent into a washing machine and a dryer. Even if you used the gentlest cycle, a washing machine will stretch and damage the tent. When you wash a tent, it must be done by hand.

Begin by filling up a large bucket with warm soapy water. Avoid using soap with a fragrance, since this can attract insects. Make sure the soap you use won’t break down the waterproof coating. Use a cloth or a non-abrasive sponge to scrub the tent out gently. Pay extra attention to soiled areas but avoid overworking any waterproof areas such as the seams and the floor.

Once you’ve taken care of the problem areas, place the entire tent in a bath of warm soapy water. Rinse it out and hang it up to dry.

Prevent Mold

Tents consist of a series of fabrics that are strung up to provide a barrier between the elements and the people inside. Naturally, they tend to accumulate moisture. When people sleep in the tent, their body produces heat, while their breath produces moisture. This moist warm air will float upward, colliding with the sides of the tent. Moisture will condense on it since the fabric is colder from the outside air.

Mold can begin to form when this moisture becomes trapped inside the tent. In most cases, this will occur when a person packs the tent before it’s had time to dry. To prevent mold from growing on your tent, make sure you take extra time to allow it to dry before you store it away.

When you get home, you can bring the tent indoors and hang it up to dry in a cool area. You can also use a fan to speed up the drying process. Once the tent is bone-dry you can store it in a dry area and not have to worry about mold growth.

Cleaning Mildew and Mold

Knowing how to get rid of mold from a tent will come in handy at some point. If the weather isn’t cooperating, then there may be a time when you have to pack up your tent when it’s still wet.

When it’s time to unpack the tent for a good cleaning, you’ll probably come across some mold patches. To prepare for mildew and mold removal, start by placing the tent outdoors or on a dry flat surface in the basement or garage. The tent must be dried out before you begin the mold removal process. If you hang it up outside, the sun can help to kill the mold.

To clean, you’ll need to prepare a mixture of vinegar, hot water, and dish soap. Use this mixture and wipe down all the affected areas of the tent. If you’re dealing with a stubborn patch of mold, you can use a soft bristled brush to scrub it out. Once the tent has dried, this can also be a good time to weatherproof it.

Waterproof Coating Repair

waterproof tent

Over time, a tent’s waterproof coatings and layers will come off, which is why they must be reapplied every three years.

To do, you’ll want to make sure your tent is totally dry and place it in an area where it won’t pick up any dirt. You’ll treat the seams first. For this job, you’ll need to use seam sealer, which will waterproof all of the vulnerable parts of the tent where it’s applied. You can also use seam sealer for patching small holes in the fabric.

Take a look at the rest of the tent. If the waterproof coating has started to peel off, then you can apply some polyurethane. First, you’ll need to clean the tent and remove the old polyurethane layer. The next step is brushing the coating on and allowing it to soak in.

Storing the Tent After a Cleaning

After you’ve given the tent a good cleaning, once it has completely dried out, fold it evenly into thirds. The tent should be folded along its longer axis. It should then be rolled tightly, in order to get rid of any pockets of air. Rolling the tent will place an equal amount of stress on all of the seams. I recommend storing the tent in a pillowcase, since it’s breathable and spacious and can help to prevent mold growth, while also protecting the tent from dust, dirt, and grime. For the tent poles, store them fully assembled. Doing so will reduce any tension that’s placed on the shock cord, which will prolong the life of the tent.

When it’s Time to Replace a Tent

Even if you take great care of your tent, at some point it’s going to need to be replaced. The whole point of using a tent is to protect you and your fellow campers from the elements. When a tent is no longer able to do this, it’s time to throw in the towel and purchase a new one.

Signs you need a new tent can include:

  • Large rips or tears
  • A leaky roof
  • You’ve applied more weatherproof coatings but the tent still leaks
  • Worn areas on the wall or flooring
  • Foul odor that does not come out with repeat cleanings
  • The tent is no longer able to keep you cool or warm

Final Thoughts

Learning how to clean a tent can help your tent last year after year. It’s important that you clean your tent immediately following a long camping trip, or a short camping trip in which you deal with challenging weather conditions. Failing to clean a dirty tent immediately can cause the material to degrade or can promote mold and mildew growth in a matter of just a few days. This guide and the tips I’ve included here are simple to follow and an important part of tent maintenance. Remember, keeping your tent in great shape will ensure it’s able to protect you and your family from the elements, on your next camping adventure.