©istockphoto/fotoVoyager
©istockphoto/fotoVoyager

After a back­pack­ing or camp­ing trip, it’s too easy to just toss gear into a heap in stor­age and for­get about it until the next trip. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this type of neg­li­gence will destroy your tent faster than a hun­gry bear, a pack of mice, or a mur­der of crows look­ing for an oppor­tu­ni­ty in the backcountry.

Pre-Treat
Aging tents whose fin­ish­es are old and dete­ri­o­rat­ing are often the fastest to pop­u­late with mold or mildew spores and even bac­te­ria (which results from dete­ri­o­rat­ing tent coat­ings). But it can hap­pen to new tents put away damp or dirty, too. You’ll know how bad it is by its smell. If your tent has devel­oped a wretched stink, the eas­i­est and cheap­est cure is to pre-wash it in a util­i­ty or laun­dry sink filled with water and 4 cups of bak­ing soda mixed in. Soak for about 2 hours. Pick it up and hold it to your nose to check for lin­ger­ing odors. Once the stink is gone, rinse it well, and hang it up to dry, or throw it in a dry­er on the air dry setting.

Anoth­er option is to use an all-in-one dis­in­fec­tant, fungi­cide, viru­cide, and ger­mi­cide. If you go for this big gun approach (this par­tic­u­lar EPA reg­is­tered prod­uct is effec­tive against a wide range of microbes), set up the tent on hard sur­faces, spray it down and let it sit for at least 10 min­utes before mov­ing on to wash­ing it. But keep in mind some peo­ple are sen­si­tive to these chem­i­cals so you real­ly need to dou­ble rinse your tent if you go this route.

Pre-wash­ing tents with enzyme-based clean­ers is the best way to get stink out of old tents, despite what many peo­ple claim. Enzymes are pow­er­ful scav­engers of microbes. Try this before going for the big gun treat­ment out­lined below. Fol­low direc­tions on the bot­tle for amounts.

Spot treat grease stains with an organ­ic cit­rus-based sol­vent (rinse well after apply­ing to indi­vid­ual spots). Remove black stains caused by flak­ing met­al from alu­minum poles by spot treat­ing with a water-based sil­ver tar­nish remover (typ­i­cal­ly used for jew­el­ry and house­hold goods).

Clean It
High-qual­i­ty new tents are typ­i­cal­ly treat­ed with a Durable Water Repel­len­cy (DWR) fin­ish with a ure­thane coat­ing (on the fly and on the inside of the tent body) to make it water­proof. DWR resists water, mak­ing it bead up and roll off like the wax fin­ish on a car. In time, as the tent­ages, the DWR dis­in­te­grates and the fab­ric begins to absorb more water, which breaks down the ure­thane coating.

Observe the state of these coat­ings, and use your nose to guide your clean­ing procedure:

For tents with light musty odors, and those that haven’t been cleaned in a while, use a clean­er specif­i­cal­ly designed for tents, like McNett’s Revivex or Nikwax Tech Wash, to remove dirt and residues that might oth­er­wise pre­vent water­proof­ing poly­mers (that you’ll use to recoat the tent) from bond­ing to the fibers that com­prise the tent fab­ric; you do not want to try to re-coat over dirt or stains. Tent clean­ing prod­ucts are specif­i­cal­ly for­mu­lat­ed to clean high-tech gear with­out dimin­ish­ing their DWR fin­ish. They remove dirt (but not nec­es­sar­i­ly grease or stains) and ensure the tent fab­ric can even­ly and con­sis­tent­ly take up any new treat­ment. Avoid using dish­wash­ing liq­uid, laun­dry boost­ers, spot removers or bleach on tents. Such prod­ucts can inter­fere with the DWR fin­ish, or worse leave a film that will make the tent dif­fi­cult to prop­er­ly recoat.

Fill the sink with water, mix in the clean­ing prod­uct per instruc­tions and gen­tly scrub tent fab­ric all over with a soft sponge, by hand. Then squish and squeeze the fab­ric for about 10 min­utes. Rinse thor­ough­ly, and toss in the dry­er; dry on the air-only set­ting. Dry­ing it in a dry­er will keep it free from air­borne dust and pollen. Don’t set it up on grass or dirt. Some retail­ers rec­om­mend this, but if you plan to recoat it, any debris or dust that have clung to the fab­ric will cre­ate an uneven sur­face when you re-coat it.

If your tent still has intact water­proof­ing, you can skip pre-treat­men­t/wash and go straight to a DWR-safe clean­er fol­lowed by a wash-in, brush on or spray-on re-coat­ing prod­uct. Use a util­i­ty sink or a large tub to hand-wash the tent (don’t use a wash­ing machine, which can over­stress seams and net­ting on old­er tents).

If the tent has already lost all its guts and glo­ry (finishes/coatings), you can safe­ly pitch it in the wash­ing machine; fol­low clean­ing direc­tions on the bot­tle of tent spe­cif­ic cleaner.

If it’s peel­ing, it gets more com­pli­cat­ed but well worth a try. Scrub off as much of the peel­ing ure­thane as you can with a bris­tled brush and then throw it in the wash­ing machine to try to remove the rest. You may not get it all off, but try to get as much as you can so you can vir­tu­al­ly start over.

Re-Coat
Set the tent up on a clean, hard sur­face and use a seam seal­er to first coat all the seams. Then apply two coats (let the first dry 24 hours) of a polyurethane (PU) sealant (a good option is Tent Sure Tent Floor Sealant ). A foam brush makes appli­ca­tion easy and pro­duces a clear and flex­i­ble fin­ish that will make your tent look almost new with­out nary a stink.

Store It
Con­sid­er stor­ing your tent in a duf­fel instead of its orig­i­nal stor­age sack. Air cir­cu­la­tion will ensure a fresh­er smelling tent the next time you pull it out to use it. In fact, the best thing you can do for your tent is to store it in a dry, loose­ly packed state, prefer­ably in a bag with mesh top to help pre­vent mois­ture that leads to mold and mildew, and one that’s big enough to min­i­mizes stress on the ten­t’s fab­rics, seams and zip­pers. Final­ly, don’t store your tent in a musty base­ment or un-insu­lat­ed garage (where heat fluc­tu­a­tions will do a num­ber on tent com­po­nents). Con­sid­er stor­ing your tent in your bed­room or hall clos­et instead of a garage, base­ment or attic.