Trail Life 101: Tent Care

Like most outdoor fanatics I scrimp, save, and scan Gear Trade  or other sale sites for the backpacking tent I have been drooling over for the past six months (or more).

Backpacking tents are one of the largest investments that any avid backpacker or climber will make. Taking time to give your new investment some TLC after every trip will help to ensure a number of comfortable evenings for many trips to come. 

Basic Cleaning and Storage

One of the top priorities in tent care is properly cleaning and storing it after each trip. Not only will this prolong the tent’s life, you will also avoid that disgusting smell of mildew next time to you go set up camp ten miles in. Shake out loose dirt, clean off any mud, wipe down the floor, and fly with a sponge and water when you return home from every trip. Make sure the tent and fly are also both dry (avoid direct sunlight) before packing it away. If you live in a humid environment consider storing your tent loosely in a stuff sack or box to avoid mildew.

Mildew will kill a tent and your sense of smell. This fungus will penetrate the urethane coasting of the tent fabric and grow between the fabric and coating eventually lifting the coating from the fabric thus loosing all waterproof capabilities. Should mildew begin to form you can sponge-wipe the tent with a solution made up of 1/2 cup Lysol to a gallon of hot water, or rinse with a solution of 1 cup of lemon juice and 1 cup of salt to a gallon of hot water.

Zipper Care

Most of the problems experienced with tent zippers are due to wear in the zipper sliders, rather than a failure of the coil itself. (The slider is the metal part that you move to zip and unzip the zipper.) Particles of dirt and grit on the coil, accumulated during use, abrade the mechanism inside the slider head. Once a slider becomes worn it will stop engaging the teeth of the coil correctly and cause the zipper to slide out-of-place. Avoid accelerated wear and tear by cleaning the zipper coils after every trip, especially in sandy and gritting environments. Zipper cleaners and lube are available at most outdoor stores, or you can use paraffin wax or lip balm if you’re in a pinch. Petroleum based lubricants are not recommended.

Sun Damage

One of the biggest causes of tent damage comes from the sun. UV damage will cause nylon and polyester to become brittle and eventually tear. When traveling in dry and sunny environments try to set up your tent in the shade whenever possible. Consider using the rain fly even on clear days as it acts as a sunscreen for the tent and is less expensive to replace if it is damaged.

Tree Sap

Tents are made from a variety of materials so it is difficult to say what substance will or will not damage your tent. You are best to start with only a small spot on the tent and with substances that are less likely to do any damage to begin with. Some die-hard backpackers swear by butter or vegetable oil rubbed into the area with a paper or cloth. Unless you enjoy the midnight invasion of woodland creatures licking your face or attempting to tear down your tent, make sure to immediately follow this method with soap and water to remove any oil and residual smell.

3 thoughts on “Trail Life 101: Tent Care

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ethan! It is a task that gets pushed aside, I know first hand.

      What tent are you currently using? I am always interested in hearing opinions and reviews!

      1. When I backpack or lead trips, I’ve typically used the Eureka Timberline series, an “old school” style A-Frame. I find the aluminum poles work best; a bit heavier, but they don’t shatter like fiberglass has been known to do. I also like using the 10′ x 10′ nylon tarps from Campmor. They are super light, easy to set up, can be set up in many useful configurations, and are versatile.

        However, as money is pretty tight, my personal tent is a K-Mart/Target/”I-Don’t-Really-Know” that I found in a thrift shop, and put a little TLC into (sealing the seams, etc.). I’m saving up for something from the Eureka Apex series.

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