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Shelter Sanitation: How To Clean A Camping Tent

With spring passed and summer in full swing, we’re trying to get out into the great outdoors as much as possible. That means taking day trips to the beach, hiking to our hearts content, and a lot of camping. For the latter, our home away from home is our camping tent. And while these portable sleepers are plenty resilient when it comes to the weather, they still need a little TLC from time to time.

If you, like us, value camping as an outdoor activity, you should also place similar value on your camping tent. Which also means treating it with respect and care, so that you can keep using it for years to come. In order to make that happen, you’re going to want to clean it every once in a while. but since you can’t just toss it into your washing machine – seriously, don’t do that, you’ll ruin it – we’ve put together the following guide to help walk you through the steps of how to clean your camping tent.

It Starts At The Campsite

A Clean Sweep

As you might imagine, cleaning your camping tent doesn’t start after your trip has ended. In fact, it begins from the moment you set up shop at your campsite of choice. No, we’re not suggesting you bring cleaning supplies with you every time you go sleep in the woods,You should definitely make a habit out of cleaning up your tent as you might in your own home. but you should definitely make a habit out of cleaning up your tent as you might in your own home.

Simple trip maintenance doesn’t take a lot of work. Just sweep out/off any dirt and dust, toss out any chunks of mud or rocks, etc. If you have the option, bring a little dustpan and/or broom along with you to make the task easier. It’s not an absolutely necessary step in the process, but it will make your actual cleaning tasks a lot easier when the time comes. Plus, it will help extend the life of your tent a good long while. And, though it might seem obvious, try to leave your hiking boots outside of the main sleeping area of your tent, as they are the worst offenders when it comes to dragging in stuff from the outside. Even clean boot treads can be harsh on your tent’s floor.

What You'll Need

Cleaning Supplies

As mentioned before, you absolutely should not toss your tent into your washing machine. While some the technical fabrics themselves might be able to survive being churned about in a stainless steel drum full of water and detergent, the seams, mesh, zippers, and more will likely not be as fortunate. As such, tent cleaning must be done by hand. And if you’re going to get it done right, you’ll want to have the following supplies on hand:

Mild Unscented Soap

As you might when taking care of leather, using a non-abrasive scent-free soap is an excellent idea when it comes to tent cleaning. The materials used on a tent are already paper thin – hence the desire for non-abrasion – and the chemicals found in things like dish soap can be extremely harsh. We suggest using something like Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap. It will get the job done right without harming your camping tent.

Purchase: $16

Nikwax Tech Wash

For especially difficult stains, tree sap, or whatever else, you’ll want to opt for something with a little more cleaning power. But rather than reaching for laundry detergent or something similar, we suggest using Nikwax Tech Wash. This special formula is ideal for outdoor gear – not just tents, but also your rain jacket, adventure pants, and more. Plus, the two-pack comes with a weatherproofing finish, if that’s something you’re interested in.

Purchase: $18

Non-Abrasive Cleaning Cloth Or Sponge

Friction is the enemy of super thin technical materials. Too much of it will result in tears that are often unfixable. So rather than scrubbing away at your camping tent with a scouring pad, we suggest these microfiber cloths. They’re a lot more gentle, but can still help clean those tough spots.

Purchase: $12

Cleaning Brush

To be used primarily on zippers, a cleaning brush is your detailing tool. Do not rely too heavily on this instrument, however, as the fabrics that make up most camping tents are rather thin. That is to say, while they’re great at repelling rain and wind and can be puncture resistant, they’re plenty susceptible to breaking down due to friction. You can also opt for a toothbrush, if you don’t want to buy a dedicated cleaning brush.

Purchase: $6

Revivex Odor Eliminator

If your tent smells of mildew, body odor, or whatever else, you’re going to have a hard time getting rid of the smell. Luckily, there’s Gear Aid’s Revived Odor Eliminator. It works as a soak, meaning you add it to water and then let your tent sit in in for a while, which makes it a very simple fix. Just make sure you don’t leave your tent in for too long, or else it could eat away and your weatherproof-coating.

Purchase: $8

Start With Spots

Detailing Your Tent

Your first instinct might be soaking your tent in water and soap, as you might with clothing you’re hand-washing. But we suggest against that. The reason is simple: if you have any dirt, grime, sap, etc. on your tent, tossing it all into a tub of water together isn’t necessarily going to clean it off. Rather, before you clean the whole rig, it’s important to spot-clean any stubborn spots. Use the following method:

  1. First, lay your tent out as flat as you can. This will allow you to take note not just of any spots that need special attention, but will also let you keep track of exactly where those spot are.

  2. Next, take one of your cleaning cloths or non-abrasive sponges, apply a bit of warm water and some of your mild dish soap, and gently rub the spot. Dirt, dust, and other mild stains should come out with just a little attention. Just be careful not to rub too hard.

  3. Repeat step 3 as needed, until the spot has been cleaned to your satisfaction. Again, be aware of how much friction you are applying. Once you are satisfied that the spot is clean, take a clean cleaning cloth, apply some lukewarm water, and wipe away the soap.

  4. Note any dirt or filth that is causing your tent’s zippers to catch. You should be able to clear away the dirt with a bit of warm water and your cleaning brush. If there is sap in your zipper, use a bit of the soap and water along with your brush to clear it from your zipper’s teeth.

That’s all there is to it. If you do find that you have an especially tough spot or, say, tree sap, you can also use a mineral oil or alcohol-based cleaning solution to get it off, though we suggest against that as much as possible, for it will be harsh on your tent’s materials and can damage the weatherproofing. But, it might be your only option in extreme cases.

Washing The Rest

Soak & Rinse

Cleaning the rest of your tent is fairly simple. All you have to do is unzip all the doors and windows of your tent, turn the whole thing inside out, fill a tub with lukewarm water, add a bit of that dish soap, and put your tent inside. Cleaning the rest of your tent is fairly simple.Then, you just let it soak for a short amount of time before you remove your tent.

If your tent has been subject to mildew and has an unpleasant smell to it, you can follow the same steps as above, except instead of your soap – use the Gear Aid Revivex Odor Eliminator. The instructions call for a half ounce per every 20 gallons of water and the bottle will have instructions as to how long to let your tent soak.

When it comes to cleaning your poles, stakes, and any other metal bits you might have, cleaning is comparable in its simplicity. All you have to do is wipe them down. If you have any especially resilient dirt, you can use your soap and cleaning brush. Just make sure you wipe any metal bits dry after cleaning it, as even stainless steel can rust given the right circumstances.

You may also want to consider re-weatherproofing your tent. As is the case with weatherproofing jackets, the coatings on your tent will dissipate with time and exposure to UV light, meaning they can benefit from a refresher every so often. We don’t suggest you do this every time you wash your tent, but it certainly needs to be done from time to time, especially if you use your tent frequently.

Dry It Out

Moisture Is Your Enemy

If you put your tent away before it’s dry, you might as well just prepare yourself to wash it all over again.Potentially the most vital step to cleaning your tent is this last one: you must let your tent dry completely before putting it back into storage. All of your hard work will have been for nothing if you don’t lay out your tent and allow it to completely dry out – both inside and out. This is because trapped moisture is a boon for bacteria and will allow it to grow, thus imbuing your tent with a mildew smell and potentially cultivating mold. If you put your tent away before it’s dry, you might as well just prepare yourself to wash it all over again. However, once your tent is dry, it should be ready to hit the trails once more.

15 Best Large Camping Tents

Like most things, camping is sometimes better when done with others. But that also means you’ll need to accommodations to suit a bigger group. And that’s why we put together this list of the best large camping tents.