Tents are a necessary shelter for hikers and campers in the frontcountry and backcountry, and just like a house needs to be maintained to preserve its longevity, tents require a similar, albeit easier, method of care.
Though lightweight backpacking tents cost a small fortune, they’re worth every cent. The high-quality and gossamer materials are essential for backpackers, thru-hikers, peak baggers, and minimalistic car campers, and ensure that, with the right care, they might never need to buy another tent again.
The steep price tag is extra encouragement for hikers and campers to extend the life of their tents. Protecting and caring for a tent begins with setup and extends all the way to storage.
In this tent care guide, you will learn how to protect, clean, store, and repair your tent to prolong the life of your outdoor home.
How to Protect Your Tent
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Protect Your Tent During Setup
Use a Footprint
Before pitching your tent, make sure you have a footprint that is tailored to your tent’s exact size and shape.
A footprint is a custom ground cloth that lies directly underneath the tent, protecting the floor from abrasion and providing a clean space to break down your tent.
Not only do footprints protect the tent, but they also don’t allow rainwater to collect underneath because the material doesn’t extend past the perimeter of the tent body.
While you could simply use a generic ground cloth or tarp, those will be heavier and you’ll need to cut them to match the perimeter or tuck the protruding edges underneath the tent to prevent flooding.
To set up, simply lay the footprint on the ground and pitch your tent on top. Assembly will vary based on tent brands and models, but essentially you will snap the buckles to attach the footprint to the tent body or rainfly.
To tear down, disassemble the tent on top of the footprint so that your tent body and rainfly don’t ever touch the ground and risk scraping against sharp detritus.
Why is a Footprint Necessary?
Here’s an example.
If you are camping on loose gravel without a footprint, the fine rocks could poke holes in the tent’s floor or grate at the waterproof coating. A footprint grants that added layer of protection. Should a rock stab a hole through anything or corrode any piece of material, it’ll be the footprint, not the tent. You’d then replace or repair the footprint, which is just a mere fraction of the cost of a backpacking tent.
Choose a Level, Debris-Free Campsite
Carefully choose your campsite.
Established campsites with pre-cut tent pads or smooth, level dirt or grass are the gentlest on your tent, but those aren’t always available, especially if you’re in the backcountry.
Backcountry campers need to be a bit more meticulous about finding the right spot that won’t harm the base of their tent. Select an area that’s level, smooth, and free of debris and plants. If rocks seem to be the only option, try to locate a large, smooth slab of sandstone as opposed to loose gravel.
Once you’ve selected a site, sweep debris away before tent set-up.
Avoid Direct Sunlight
Over time, the harsh UV rays from the sun will begin to degrade the coating on the tent.
To extend the longevity of your tent, pitch it under a canopy of trees or in the shadows of a rock overhang.
Also, keep in mind if you’re climbing a mountain or gaining a significant amount of elevation on your hike, the UV index will creep higher as elevation increases, posing a larger threat to your tent’s coating degradation.
Don’t leave your tent to bask in the sun while you go day hiking; move it into the shade, if possible. If tent relocation is not an option, consider disassembling and reassembling when you make it back to camp.
Treat All Parts Delicately
Be gentle with each and every part of your tent.
Though the tent pieces are built to withstand strong storms and windy conditions with the most durable materials on the market, you still need to treat them delicately.
Don’t yank tent poles and shock cords, forcefully jam stakes in the ground, or fight with the zippers. Carefully connect each pole when setting up; don’t shake the shock cords into place, as that will cause unnecessary strain.
Pitch Your Tent Away From Water and Campfires
Camp at least 200 feet away from water, above the high tide line on beaches, and at least 15 feet from open campfires to avoid any accidental damage to your tent.
You don’t want to wake up to a flooded tent or instigate a fire hazard!
Protect Your Tent During Use
Don’t Wear Shoes Inside the Tent
Keep a clean tent by taking off your shoes and wiping your feet outside prior to entering your tent.
It’s fairly easy to unintentionally drag debris into the tent. I always take extra caution to brush off my clothes, remove my shoes, and brush any sand away from my skin before I enter the tent, but somehow, grass, dirt, dried mud, and/or sand always sneak inside the mesh walls.
The easiest way to avoid dragging detritus inside is to not wear shoes inside the tent. Keep your shoes under the rainfly vestibule outside of the tent doors for easy access and to ensure that they stay dry.
Brushing off your clothes and exposed skin before climbing inside, and taking fewer trips in and out of the tent will also severely diminish the amount of debris.
Keep Debris Out of the Tent
As mentioned above, debris inside a tent is inevitable. Whether it be sand, dirt, mud, or grass, debris will undoubtedly transfer from your skin or clothes onto the tent floor.
To help control the debris, bring a compact, lightweight broom and dustpan along on your backpacking and camping adventures so that you can easily sweep up the clutter and toss it outside of the tent.
Not only is in-tent debris annoying but it can be detrimental to the tent. If sand or dirt gets stuck in the zippers, eventually the slider will wear out or the zipper will jam and not be able to open and close. And loose gravel or rocks inside the tent could puncture holes in the lining.
Store Food and Scented Items Outside of the Tent
Storing food in your vehicle or in a bear canister away from your tent, even when not in bear country, is important because critters of all shapes and sizes will gladly chew through your tent to munch on your yummy snacks.
If you are backpacking, stow your food in a bear canister, and make sure it is at least 300 feet from your tent. You can learn more about bear safety and camping safely in bear country here. 🐻
If you are car camping, throw all food and scented items, including toothpaste, wipes, and lotions, inside your vehicle’s trunk.
Keep Your Tent Ventilated
To avoid moisture build-up and to evaporate stagnant moisture that’s clinging to your walls, ventilate the tent by removing the rainfly or opening vents and windows.
Though high-end backpacking tent brands design their tents with this type of ventilation in mind, it’s important to allow the air to flow in any extra way you can.
Protect Your Tent During Breakdown
Shake Off Debris and Dry Completely Before Stuffing
Before packing up your tent, shake off all debris and make sure that it is completely dry.
If the tent is wet and stuffed tightly in its compressed sack, it can harbor bacteria and ruin the waterproof coating.
If you’re unable to allow your tent to dry, make sure that is the first thing you do once you are home or at your next campsite.
Gently Collapse Tent Poles
Tear down the tent poles starting in the middle and collapse section by section as opposed to letting the shock cords snap into place.
These actions will prevent strained tension on the cords.
How to Clean Your Tent
Never Use Washing Machines or Dryers
Never machine wash or dry your tent for any reason; always wash by hand and air dry.
Even on a delicate cycle, a washing machine and dryer could tear and shred the tent materials.
Spot Treat Your Tent
As soon as you get home, inspect your tent for things like bird poop, dead bugs, or dirt. Brush off all loose debris before cleaning.
Spot clean the materials using a non-abrasive sponge, cold water, and a non-detergent soap. Gently scrub at the dirty areas, taking extra caution on coated areas of the floor and rainfly.
For an extra-soiled tent, you can submerge it in a tub full of water and tent cleaner. Rinse and repeat as directed on the bottle and dry your tent thoroughly before putting it back in storage.
Wipe Tent Poles and Stakes
Use a damp cloth to wipe tent poles and stakes after each trip.
How to Store Your Tent
Always Store the Tent Dry
A wet tent nurses mildew and bacteria that not only smell rancid but could cause detrimental defects to the waterproof coating on your tent.
If your tent is still wet from your trip, the first thing you need to do when you get home is air dry it.
Never store a tent with any amount of moisture still clinging to the materials!
Store Outside of its Stuff Sack
While the stuff sack is ideal for storing in a backpack and stowing in a car to maximize space, the compressed sack isn’t great for long-term storage.
In between each of your adventures – whether it’s a week, month, or year – fold, roll, or stuff it inside a mesh bag, duffel bag, or even a pillowcase to allow the materials to breathe and avoid trapping moisture.
Everyone has a different opinion about whether to fold, roll, or stuff it, but ultimately, if you have a high-end tent, the materials should be able to handle any of those approaches.
Store in a Cool, Dry Place
Damp or hot locations like attics, basements, and car trunks aren’t great for tents.
Tents need dry and cool places like bedroom closets or garages.
How to Repair Your Tent
Repair Your Tent on the Trail
To repair a broken tent pole on the trail:
- Utilize the repair splint that comes with most high-end backpacking tents and wrap it with duct tape.
- Affix only duct tape between the two poles if you don’t have the repair splint.
To repair holes or tears in the tent on the trail:
- Utilize a patch kit.
- Affix duct tape on both sides of the hole if you don’t have a patch kit.
Repair Your Tent at Home
To repair holes or tears in the fabric at home:
- Clean the area with rubbing alcohol.
- Cut a piece of repair tape to stick over the area.
- Apply the tape to the outside and inside of the tent, if necessary.
To repair holes or tears in the mesh at home:
- Cover the hole with a mesh patch.
To lubricate a sticky tent zipper at home:
- Brush debris from the zipper.
- Apply a zipper cleaner and lubricant product.
To seal leaks in your tent at home:
- Clean seams with a rag and rubbing alcohol.
- Apply seam sealer.
- Spread the seam sealer in a smooth, even coating.
- Let dry.
Why You Should Care For Your Tent
Proper tent care could save you from preventable gear malfunctions while on the trail. You could cause yourself harm if you aren’t properly sheltered.
Proper tent care could save you time on preventable repairs so that you can spend more time doing what you love most.
Proper tent care could save you money. Spend more money on experiences as opposed to tent repairs and replacements.
I hope this guide helped you understand how to protect, clean, store, and repair your tent properly, and why it’s so important to give your tent the proper care it needs.
I’m not sure about you, but caring for my gear is part of the fun! I enjoy coming home after an amazing backpacking trip, cleaning the gear as I recall the highlights, and tucking everything away until the next adventure.