Dealing with a dirty/moldy tent can be a serious pain. Since you can’t toss it in the laundry machine, how can you wash a dirty tent? Can you wash a tent in the bathtub?
You can wash a tent in the bathtub if it’s not overly dirty. It’s better to use a 5 gallon bucket, utility tub or large plastic container if your tent is really smelly and needs to soak in an enzyme based cleaner for a few days. It’s hard to go without a shower for that long.
So what’s the easiest way to clean a tent since I can’t use a washing machine? I’ll go over the simple cleaning process and give you a few gentle soap options to clean your tent.
Washing A Tent In The Bathtub
Washing a tent isn’t as simple as tossing it in the washing machine. Overworking a tent in the wash can easily cause tears if you’re not careful. If your tent isn’t overly dirty you can easily soak/wash it in the bathtub.
So how do I wash my tent in the tub?
- Plug Up The Drain: Obviously you will want to plug up your tub drain so you can start filling it up with water.
- Fill The Tub With Warm Water: Fill your tub up halfway with warm water (not scalding hot). You don’t want to accidentally melt the tent or burn your fingers. If you plan on using an enzyme cleaner this is the perfect time to wash the rest of your camping gear. Toss in your boots, backpack, sleeping bag, etc. Anything that stinks!
- Add A Gentle Tent Cleaner: I always use an enzyme based cleaner to clean my camping gear. Gear Aid Revivex Odor Eliminator is a gentle cleaner that gets out even the nastiest smelling odors. You can use a weak solution of dr bronners soap if you have that laying around, but it won’t get rid of the smell.
- Hand Wash The Gear: Gently rub down your gear making sure you get all the dirt/debris off. You might need to use a gentle brush to clean caked on mud. Just be careful so you don’t destroy the DWR (durable water repellant) coating.
- Drain The Tub And Rinse: At this point I would probably take a look at the water. If it’s brown and nasty from lots of mud, I’d drain the tub and rinse everything with warm clean water. You might be better off filling up a utility sink, 5 gallon bucket, or plastic tub if you plan on soaking everything for a few days. It’s fine if you have an extra bathroom, but I wouldn’t tie up my main bathtub for 3 days soaking a tent.
- Soak Everything In Enzyme Cleaner(Maybe): Whether or not you need to soak your gear for a few days depends on the smell. If you’re satisfied with how everything came out setup your tent outside to dry. You’ll want to soak everything in an enzyme cleaner (my favorite) for a few days if it has a nasty smell.
- Setup The Tent Outside To Dry: After 72 hours you’ll need to drain the tub and take the tent outside and set it up to dry. You won’t be able to dry a tent indoors when it’s been soaking for days and completely saturated. Head down to a local park if there’s no space in the yard.
If you’re tents has a nasty mildew (or even worse vomit) smell you need to take a more gentle approach and slowly soak the tent over a few days.
Do You Really Need To Soak The Tent?
You need to think about a few simple questions, before filling your tub and going to work on your tent. Do you really need to deep clean the tent? Is your tent dirty with a little mud or is there a bigger problem (mildew, vomit, rancid smell, dog poop, etc.)? Can I get away with hosing it off and spraying it with a cleaner(much easier)?
I recommend setting your tent up in the yard and hosing it off if it’s not that dirty. That’s all you really need when dealing with mud, food and other common issues. Spray some Nikwax Tent & Gear Solarwash if it’s really bad. This also fixes the waterproofing and UV Barrier so it’s good to do regardless.
Once your satisfied, hose everything off and leave the tent up to dry. It shouldn’t take more than 2-3 hours for a tent to dry on a sunny day. Water shouldn’t soak into the fabric if it’s properly waterproofed.
Buckets, Tubs, and Utility Sinks
I highly recommend using a large container to soak your gear instead of a bathtub. It’s just not possible with one bathtub in my house. Using the sprayer to rinse everything off is convenient, but it’s not worth the hassle of tying up my tub for days. Plus it’s much easier to hose down a bucket than clean mud out of a bathtub.
A utility tub would be your best option, but that’s not an option for some people. If you don’t have a utility tub, there’s probably a 5 gallon bucket or storage container in your garage. If not head down to your local home improvement store and pick up a cheap bucket for like $3. Wash everything in the tub and use the bucket for the long soak.
Choosing A Tent Cleaner
So what if you’re tents so bad that it needs to be soaked? You’ll need to take a direct approach and use a real cleaner. I wouldn’t mess around here. Spend a few bucks and buy a real enzyme based cleaner designed for camping gear. Gear Aid Revivex Odor Eliminator is by far the best product on the market and not that expensive.
Be careful when choosing a detergent to wash your tent. Traditional laundry detergents like Tide are much too strong for a tent. It will probably clean your gear, but you will also wash away the durable water repellant coating.
Can I Soak My Tent In Vinegar, Lemon/Lime Juice Or Bleach?
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend using vinegar, bleach or lemon/lime juice. Bleach will most likely damage your tent. Lemon/lime juice might help some, but it won’t due much. Vinegar will technically clean your tent, but it has one major problem.
Lots of people swear by soaking their stinky camping gear in vinegar. It does technically clean out mold and mildew smells, but it leaves behind it’s own nasty odor. You’re just trading one smell for another. I don’t care how well you clean your tent afterwards, there will always be a faint vinegar smell whenever the wind blows.
Some Tents Aren’t Worth Saving
You really need to sit down and think about whether or not it’s worth going through the hassle of deep cleaning your tent. There are two major factors you need to consider. How much would it cost to replace the tent and what is the source of the odor?
I’ve gotten a lot of use out of budget tents, but a cheap $20 Walmart tent probably won’t survive the cleaning process. They’re meant for the occasional camper that might go on 5-10 camping trips over their life. Just buy another tent instead of wasting your time. An expensive tent is usually worth cleaning as long as it’s not torn or dry rotted.
There’s also been times in my life where I’ve decided to throw out tents because I couldn’t bear to clean them. My dog had a night filled with puke and poop one terrible evening. I slept outside the rest of the trip and that tent went straight to the dumpster. It should have went to a biohazard facility (it was that bad)!
I hate the “throwaway culture” our society has adopted, but some battles aren’t worth fighting. Hand washing a tent isn’t that hard, but it’s a time consuming multi-day process.