How To Clean a Tent That Smells

During a camping holiday, you normally find yourself trying to spend as little time in the tent as possible. Of course, there are times you’ll need to be in the tent, such as during the rain, or when napping or sleeping. The one thing you don’t want when you’re spending time in an enclosed space is for that enclosed space to smell. And what’s worse, is that when the tent itself smells, there’s very little you can do about it when you’re already camping. 

Why Does My Tent Smell?

The source of your tent’s smell might not be apparent. While some smells such as those of food can be removed with a simple wash or spot cleaning, other smells may be hard to get to the bottom of. 

Mold or Mildew

Mold and mildew are very easy to let grow on your tent, but are incredibly hard to remove. Trying to clean mold and mildew using traditional methods such as a cloth can lead to you simply moving the spores around, thus letting it grow elsewhere on the same surface. 

The best way to remove mold is to kill it at the source, and there are multiple ways to achieve this. 

  • Vinegar – An effective method, but one that replaces the smell with a much more potent one. It’s best to air the tent out and deal with the smell of vinegar separately after using this method to remove mold. For this method, mix a gallon of water with a cup full of white vinegar, and spritz the solution onto the tent using a spray bottle. Gently scrub the affected areas, using a sponge or brush, and let the area dry naturally. 
  • Lemon Juice – Less effective than the previous method, but some people swear by using lemon juice to remove mold. 
  • Specialist Cleaners – Enzyme cleaners are made specifically for removing mold and mildew, these are solutions that are added to conventional cleaning techniques in order to kill mould and mildew as effectively as possible. These cleaners remove the infestation, along with the odor. 


Most tents are coated with a material called polyurethane, which can release a foul odor when it begins to break down. Polyurethane is used as a waterproofer and allows rain to slide off of tents easier.

Ironically, whilst polyurethane protects tents from the threat of mold or mildew forming, it can release a foul odor itself as it breaks down. Polyurethane can be broken down by continued exposure to UV light, which leads it to break down and release a smell not too dissimilar to urine. This is more likely to happen when your tent has seen a lot of use and is starting to get old, but the breakdown can begin to happen at any time. 

Dirt and Mud

When camping, it’s incredibly easy to get your tent dirty. Whether it be through setting your tent up in a diary area, to walking mud into the tent when climbing in and out. 

Dirt and mud are probably the most common cause of smells on a tent, as, whilst it doesn’t smell that pungent, there’s the opportunity for dirt to build up over time and make the situation worse. 

Luckily, dirt and mud are one of the quickest and easiest things to remove from a tent. There are a couple of effective ways to remove dirt and mud from a tent.

  • Soap and Water – Sometimes the most obvious method is the best. Some odorless soap mixed with warm water can easily scrub away dirt and mud from your tent. 
  • Brushing it Off – Dried mud can sometimes be simply brushed off the tent. Depending on the amount and how dry the dirt is, using a bristle brush can be used to sweep it off the tent. 

Making Sure the Smell is Gone

After cleaning the tent and ensuring the cause of the smell is dispersed, leaving your tent hanging up on a clothesline for a couple of days to let the breeze ventilate it can help substantially. Make sure, of course, when leaving it outside it doesn’t rain – or else all your hard work that went into cleaning it will be for nothing!

How to Prevent Smells

Part of maintaining your tent involves preventing smells from getting to it in the first place. Sometimes it’s completely unavoidable, such as the case for polyurethane, but other times some simple measures can be put in place to keep your tent smelling fresh.   

Waterproof Your Tent

Waterproofing your tent makes mildew less likely to grow and can prevent damp, stale smells. A full guide to waterproofing your tent can be found here, but make sure you have seam sealant and water repellant to ensure your tent is as unlikely to leak as possible. 

Anti-Fungal Sprays

Anti-fungal sprays are best sprayed onto a tent whilst it’s dry in an effort to prevent mold and mildew from growing. 

Things to Consider

As with most things when camping, planning and preparation goes a long way. Saying that, it’s important to remember when freshening your tent up, it could potentially do more harm than good. 

Bear Country

If you’re planning on camping in bear country, the smell of your tent may inadvertently attract bears. A bear’s sense of smell is over 2000x better than that of a human’s, so any smell that may seem insignificant to us can be easily picked up by them. Using scented soaps or sprays on your tent may run the risk of attracting bears to your campsite. As a result, it’s advisable to use odorless soap when washing your tent, especially if you plan on using it in bear country. 

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