How To Clean A Tent That Smells

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Is your tent developing a not-so-pleasant odor?

Fight back with our proven methods to cleaning a tent that smells!

Plus, learn how to identify what’s causing the bad smell and prevent it from happening again.

Let’s get started!

Why Does My Tent Smell?

The best way to keep your tent smelling fresh is by understanding the source of the odors. This way, you can prevent the bad smells altogether. Common causes include:

Dirt & Filth

Dirt and grime aren’t usually a direct cause for a smelly tent. However, filth caused by spilled food can lead to mold and mildew, which DOES cause a tent to smell! Plus, excess dirt and filth is just plain unsightly and make your tent look unkempt.

You are likely to get dirt and other filth in your tent if you get inside with your shoes or take snacks and food in the tent.

Mold & Mildew

If you roll your tent up and pack it away when it’s still wet, or leave your tent in a damp and moist place, you’ll most likely be greeted by mold and mildew the next time you go camping.

Mold and mildew give your tent a stale and musty smell, which makes the tent unpleasant to sleep in. Mold and mildew can also cause certain health problems if left unchecked.

Polyurethane Break Down

Most tents are polymer-coated to make them waterproof.

Ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun can break down the polyurethane, leaving your tent with a urine-like smell.

Preventing Tent Odors From Building Up

Prevention is the first step in having an odor free tent! So, now that you know what causes the odors in your tent, lets stop them from happening.

did you know Did you know…

Moisture is the leading cause of tent odors! Whether it’s from the rain, humidity, or storage in a damp place like the basement, moisture fosters mold and mildew growth, leading to a bad smell in your tent.

If you want to keep your tent clean and smelling nice, make sure you store it in a clean, dry place. You can also get a tent footprint to keep the lower part of your tent dry while you’re camping.

Waterproof Camping Tent Footprint

Waterproof Camping Tent Footprint

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If it rains while you’re camping, ensure that you wipe down your tent and allow it to completely dry before packing it up. If you don’t have time, or if it’s still raining when you pack up, let the tent dry off when you get to your destination before storing it.

Do you like eating inside your tent? That’s another way for mold and mildew – not to mention bugs – to find their way into your tent. Leave your shoes outside and avoid carrying food into your tent. This will help eliminate any small food crumbs in your tent for mold and mildew to grow on.

We have an entire guide with tons of tips from experienced campers on how to keep a tent clean while camping, so be sure to check it out.

Keeping your tent dry and clean greatly reduces the chances of it becoming smelly. And as an added bonus, it reduces the time it takes to prepare for your next camping trip!

How To Clean A Smelly Tent

There are a few different ways to effectively rid your tent of any foul odors. Which method (or methods) you choose will depend on what’s causing your odor issue.

Let’s find the best odor-fighting method for your problem.

Air Drying

Simple and effective, air-drying merely involves placing your tent outside on a clothesline or some other structure and letting the breeze and sun take care of the odor. You’ll need to brush off any dirt first. In two to three days, your tent will be smelling fresh.

Good for: Tent odors that come from being packed in a musty basement or have had dirty clothes left in them, stale food, etc. If you notice mold or mildew, then this solution will not work.

Wash Your Tent

Is your tent covered in dirt or other filth that could be contributing to the foul smell? You can quickly get rid of it by scrubbing it away using clean water and soap.

You can effectively wash your tent by either cleaning it when it is pitched or by soaking it in a tub and hand scrubbing it (do NOT attempt to wash your tent in a washing machine).

Whichever way you choose, the process is the same:

  1. Spot clean the tent: First, spot clean any badly stained or troublesome areas of the tent with a soft-bristle toothbrush or other gentle cleaning tools.
  2. Wash the tent: Using a soft sponge and dish soap, wash the entire tent, including the seams and zippers, where dirt and mold can grow unnoticed.
  3. Rinse and dry: Finally, you’ll need to thoroughly rinse any soap off the tent and allow it to dry. You can hang dry it or leave it pitched to dry. Just be sure your tent is out of the sun during the drying process, and do not put a tent in a dryer to try and speed up the process.
How to Clean a Tent || REI

Check out our guide on how to wash a tent the right way for our detailed step-by-step process.

Important: If you plan on waterproofing your tent, you should do that before you allow your tent to dry.

Good For: Odors of all types. Whether your tent is musty smelling from mold or mildew, needs a fresh coat of waterproofing, or is just plain dirty, cleaning is an essential first step.

DIY Mold Removers

If your tent has some mold on it, warm water plus soap will sometimes do the trick.

But, to help decrease the chances of the mold returning, you can use some simple household items to kill it.

Lemon Juice & Salt Method

  1. Mix 1 cup of lemon juice, 1 cup of salt, and 1 gallon of hot water.
  2. Using this solution, briskly scrub the mold patches on your nylon/polyester tent using a cloth or a bristle brush. If you are cleaning a canvas tent, use a bristle brush instead.
  3. Wash your tent using the instructions above.

Vinegar Method

  1. Mix 1 cup of white vinegar with 1 gallon of water.
  2. Put the mixture in a spray bottle and spray the moldy areas on your tent.
  3. Scrub the moldy area with a sponge or if you have a canvas tent, bristle brush.
  4. Do NOT rinse the tent so that the vinegar can work its magic. Let the tent air-dry completely in bright sunlight.

Check out our guide on how to clean a tent with mold for more detailed information on removing mold and mildew from a tent.

Good For: Tents with mild to severe mold and mildew issues.

Enzyme Cleaners

Warm water and soap may not always remove all the mold and mildew. And even if they do visually, the smell might still be present.

If you have severe contamination, you may need an enzyme cleaner to remove all of the mildew and mold, as well as the musty odor.

One of the most popular products for enzyme cleaning is Revivex. After washing your tent following the instructions above, simply:

  1. Fill a large tub with 20 gallons of water.
  2. Dilute with a 1/2 ounce of Revivex.
  3. Open any tent flaps and unzip the zippers.
  4. Soak the tent in the tub for up to 5 minutes. Be sure to completely immerse and soak the tent.
  5. After completely soaking, remove the tent and allow it to air dry. Do NOT rinse. The odor will diminish as the tent dries.
Revivex Odor & Mold Eliminator

Revivex Odor & Mold Eliminator

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Good For: Tents with mild to severe mold and mildew issues. Especially, if the musty odor is still present after washing.


As mentioned above, another cause of a smelly tent is the polyurethane waterproofing breaking down. This happens to every tent in time, but can be accelerated if your tent is repeatedly exposed to sunlight.

For the best tent waterproofing spray, I recommend Nikwax Tent & Gear Solarproof to not only waterproof your tent, but to add UV protection, as well.

Nikwax Tent & Gear Solarproof

Nikwax Tent & Gear Solarproof

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To apply Nikwax Tent & Gear Solarproof:

  1. After thoroughly washing your tent, set it up (if it’s not set up already) and lay down the rain fly next to it.
  2. Evenly spray the exterior of the tent and rain fly with Nikwax.
  3. After a few minutes wipe down any excess product with a damp cloth.
  4. Let the tent and rain fly completely dry before putting away.

Check out our complete guide on how to waterproof a tent for more details.

Good For: Tents that have a urine or vomit smell.

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