Since tents are used outdoors, they’re going to get dirty and wet over time, there’s just no way around that. As time goes on, there’s a good chance your tent will start to show signs of mold growth, and that’s not something you want to sleep in.
Knowing how to clean a tent with mold the right way will keep you healthier and get more life out of the tent. I’m going to get into each of these steps in more detail below to make it easy, but here are the steps involved in cleaning mold and mildew off your tent:
- Step 1: Set Up the Tent and Look for Mold and Mildew
- Step 2: Vacuum Out Debris and Wipe the Tent Down
- Step 3: Disassemble the Tent and Turn it Inside Out
- Step 4: Add an Enzyme Cleaner to a Tub of Water
- Step 5: Soak the Tent in the Enzyme Cleaning Solution
- Step 6: Scrub the Mold and Mildew Using a Soft Brush
- Step 7: Rinse the Tent Off with Warm Water
- Step 8: Allow the Tent to Fully Dry Out
- Step 9: Reapply Waterproof Coating
As someone who personally spends many nights every year staying in a tent, I know how important it is to keep them clean and how hard that can be. It’s not like you can just throw your tent in the washing machine and dryer, right? Sadly not.
But I’m here to show you that it really isn’t too bad, and knowing how to clean a canvas tent will make you a much better camper. Let’s dive in.
- Finding mold and mildew on your tent is extremely common, especially if you haven’t used it in a while and it’s been stored in a garage or basement.
- Having the right tools (wash basin, soft scrub brush, enzyme cleaner, etc.) makes cleaning a tent easy.
- Always dry your tent before packing it away to prevent mold growth from starting in the first place.
Why Do Tents Get Moldy?
Seeing mold or mildew on your tent is nothing to be ashamed of, it happens to most seasoned campers at some point in their camping lives. I’ve been there myself. It’s just the inevitability that comes from going camping and storing your tent during the offseason, especially if you’ve never been taught any different.
Think about it: when you’re camping, your tent is going to get wet one way or another. Either from rain, humidity, the ground, or just the morning dew that builds up. And then when you pack up your campsite, the tent gets rolled or folded up, and then often stored in the basement garage when you get home.
So, we have the potential for a damp tent that’s then stored in a damp place, with little to no sunlight, and wild temperature swings from cold to hot. Sounds like the perfect conditions for mold to build up. This is why so many people struggle with their tents getting moldy, especially after a few months of not using them.
You might also hear some other people say that this is only a problem with canvas tents. While canvas tents might be the poster child for getting moldy, just about any tent material is subject to this problem if left in the wrong conditions.
So whether you’re a fan of canvas tents, or you typically use nylon or polyester, you’ll likely need to remove mold from it at some point! But don’t worry, I’ll teach you everything you need to know about how to clean a tent with mold and mildew.
How to Clean a Tent With Mold and Mildew: Step-By-Step
We briefly mentioned all the steps involved in cleaning your tent above, but let’s take a look at each one in a little more detail. This advice comes from a combination of myself and other camping enthusiasts who have spent countless hours cleaning moldy tents over the years.
Here’s everything you need to do to clean your tent.
Step 1: Set Up the Tent and Look for Mold and Mildew
Even if you’re sure there’s mold on your tent as soon as you unzip the bag or unfold it, the first thing you want to do is go outside and set the tent up. If it’s been a while since you’ve gone camping, check out the complete guide I just wrote on how to set up a tent. It’ll walk you through the entire process.
You want to set the tent up so you can see the entire thing and get a full grasp of just how bad – or not so bad – your moldy tent problem is. Plus, having it all set up and open like this gives you an opportunity to jump straight into Step 2.
Step 2: Vacuum Out Debris and Wipe the Tent Down
While the tent is set up, now’s the perfect time to get in there with a broom and vacuum and get any sticks, leaves, dirt, and dust out. These things are inevitable while camping, and it’s nearly impossible to get everything out before you pack it up to leave your campsite. But since we will be deep cleaning the tent, now’s the perfect time.
The other thing you want to do, which is arguably even more important, is to wipe down the whole tent with a damp cloth, especially those areas that you think are mold and mildew (wear gloves!). Many times, the dark spots you think are mold turn out to just be dirt or grime.
If it wipes off, then you’re all set! Mold and mildew won’t come off that easily. If you give it a gentle scrub with your damp cloth and it doesn’t budge, chances are good it’s what you think it is, and you should continue with this guide.
Step 3: Disassemble the Tent and Turn it Inside Out
After you’ve finished the first few steps, you should have a good idea of everywhere the mold is and you should be ready to start cleaning. The first thing you need to do is disassemble the tent and get it turned inside out.
Having the tent set up is great for looking it over and getting the initial wipedown taken care of, but it needs to be disassembled for the deep cleaning process. Turning it inside out is an age-old trick that helps make sure you get down to the nitty-gritty during this process so you get rid of all the bad spots.
Step 4: Add an Enzyme Cleaner to a Tub of Water
Next, you’ll have to prep a large tub or wash basin with the right cleaning solution. In a pinch, mild soap and clean water will do a heck of a lot better than water on its own. But you really need to get your hands on some outdoor gear cleaner that’s designed for this purpose.
When it comes to removing mold, an enzyme solution like MiraZyme (recommended by REI), does the job. These types of cleaners are designed to break down the spores at the source, killing it at letting you wipe it away.
Warm water mixed with a mold cleaner like this will kill mold on the spot, making it easy to just wipe away. If you don’t have access to a solution like this, you can always try lemon juice or the vinegar method that many campers swear by, but these cleaning solutions are by far the best way.
Step 5: Soak the Tent in the Enzyme Cleaning Solution
Once you’ve added the enzyme cleaner to your water and the mixture is at a temperature ranging from cold to lukewarm (just not scalding hot), you can add your tent. Open the door, unzip the windows and any ventilation flaps, and remove the rainfly. Then soak the tent in its entirety, ensuring that every inch of the tent fabric is subjected to the cleaning solution.
Pay careful attention to the directions of whichever cleaner you go with, since it’ll tell you how long you should be soaking your tent. Too short of time in the tub and it won’t kill all the mold and mildew. Too long and you can risk damaging the tent fabric. In most cases, this time will range from 15 to 30 minutes, but do whatever the cleaner suggests!
Step 6: Scrub the Mold and Mildew Using a Soft Brush
After the tent has soaked for the proper amount of time, you’ll need to get your hands dirty and start scrubbing all the stains away. If the cleaning solution worked right, the mold should be dead where it sits and you should be able to spot clean it away with a bit of elbow grease.
The key to this step is to use a brush that’s tough enough to do the job, but soft enough not to damage your tent. If you use something like a wire brush or stainless steel scrubber for this, you’re destined to tear the tent fabric and ruin the tent yourself. A sponge can also work wonders during this step if you don’t have a soft scrub brush on hand.
This step is going to take about as much time as the first five steps combined since this is the one where you’ll actually be cleaning the mold spores away. Take your time, check the tent over regularly, gently scrub the mold stains, and get into all those little nooks and crannies to make sure you’re getting as much of the mold removed as you can.
Step 7: Rinse the Tent Off with Warm Water
Step 6 is where most of the magic and the actual cleaning happens, and you’ll typically bounce back and forth a little bit between that and this step, where you rinse the tent off with warm or hot water. As you wash away the mold and mildew, you should regularly rinse it off to see what spots are clean, where mold remains, and how the scrubbing is going.
After you’ve nearly completed scrubbing away the moldy spots, it’s a good idea to add a bit of soap into your rinse water to make sure you’re getting not only the grimy spots off, but you’re also getting off the residue from your cleaning solution.
During this step, make sure you thoroughly rinse away the mold, the cleaning solution, the soap, and any other dirt or grime you see on the tent. This is the last chance you’ll have to make sure the tent is completely clean, so take your time and rinse it off completely.
Step 8: Allow the Tent to Fully Dry Out
At this point, you’ve done most of the hard work. After the tent is cleaned and you’ve rinsed all that gunk away, you need to give it time to dry out. For this step, you can simply let the tent sit out in the sun until it’s completely dry.
Just make sure that you flip it over, turn it around, and move the door, windows, and flaps as necessary to ensure every aspect of the tent dries out completely. If you recall from earlier, the biggest culprit of a moldy tent is putting it away when it has some moisture on it.
So don’t go through all this trouble cleaning it and rinsing it off only to fold it up and put it away before it’s completely dry. Give it enough time to let your tent air dry completely (direct sunlight also helps!) and you might just help prevent future mold growth.
Step 9: Reapply Waterproof Coating
If your entire goal was just to clean your tent and remove the mold, you’re done after Step 8. But during that arduous cleaning process, there’s a good chance you removed the waterproof coating on the rainfly and the bottom of the tent floor.
This is easy to see by checking if water still beads up like it once did. If not, that means the coating is gone (or, at least, not performing as well as it once did). After you get done cleaning mold, you should always spend some time at the end to reapply the waterproof coating.
This is mainly on the rainfly and the underside of the tent, but you can realistically apply it just about anywhere on your outdoor gear that you want some extra protection. To give you an idea of what to use, check out our complete list of the best tent waterproofing sprays, which make this step a breeze.
No matter which waterproof spray you decide to use, the application is easy and this is a crucial step to protecting your tent and getting the most time possible out of it.
Should You Clean Mold Off Your Tent Immediately?
As soon as you notice mold growth starting to build up on your tent, you should set aside time to clean it off as soon as you can. Ideally, you don’t want to spend any nights staying in a tent with mold or mildew, but you definitely don’t want to make a habit of it.
Even though it’s all around us in some form or another, mold is a dangerous substance that should not be taken lightly. According to the CDC, mold can cause many adverse health effects in people. Anything from a stuffy nose and sore throat to lung infections can be caused by mold.
So, in short, try to clean any mold off as soon as possible so you don’t unnecessarily risk breathing it in. But you know what’s even better than cleaning it off quickly? Stopping it before it even starts.
How to Prevent Mold and Mildew Buildup on Your Tent
The best way to deal with mold on your tent is to prevent it from getting there in the first place. Earlier we talked about why tents get so moldy, and how it’s mainly because they’re usually stored in cool, damp, dark places. Thankfully, this makes prevention relatively easy.
If you don’t want mold or mildew to grow, simply make sure your tent is completely dry before you fold it up and store it, and keep it stored in a dry place at a moderate temperature. If your basement or garage has mold or mildew, then you probably don’t want to store your tent there or it’ll end up the same.
I typically keep my tents in my bedroom closet, which is always at roughly the same temperature as the room and rest of the house, and it stays dry. Just make sure you have it in something that gives it a little room to breathe; the bags or carry cases that tents come in are usually perfect for long-term storage.
Tents take up a surprisingly small amount of space once they’re packed away, so try to find somewhere in your house to keep your tent that will prevent mold buildup in the first place. Making sure your tent is clean and dry before you put it away with the rest of your camping gear is the easiest way to keep your tent clean.
I hope to see you out there with a clean tent on your next camping trip!