If you’ve just taken your tent out of storage, you might have had a moldy shock! Depending on the extent of the damage, you’ll have to get scrubbing, or even throw away your tent altogether.
However, is it safe to sleep in a moldy tent?
It is not safe to sleep in a moldy tent. Depending on the type of mold, you could be exposed to harmful spores that will damage your lungs, vision, and immune system. Black mold can even cause heart failure or harm an unborn fetus. If you’re pregnant, you need to be especially careful!
While not every kind of mold is dangerous, it’s best to play it safe and avoid sleeping in a moldy tent. This article will help you identify, prevent, and clean up mold in your tent, so you can enjoy your next camping trip safely.
Why Is My Tent Moldy?
If your tent gets moldy, it’s probably because it was damp when you stored it.
To be fair, it could have gotten damp when already in storage—from humidity or a leak in your garage.
But Where Did the Mold Come From?
Microscopic fungi spores might have gotten into your tent when you were out camping, or they could have already been present in your storage area. Fungi spores are too tiny to see with the naked eye until they germinate and become a thriving mold colony.
Molds do particularly well in dark environments, so they might have been triggered by the storage conditions, even if not much moisture seemed to be present.
Are All Molds Dangerous?
Now, you don’t need to freak out about invisible fungi spores attacking you from every angle.
Not all mold is bad for you. Penicillin is an antibiotic that comes from Penicillin mold. Since its discovery, it has probably saved over 200 million lives! (Source)
In general, mold that grows in anaerobic conditions (without oxygen) is dangerous, while mold that grows in aerobic conditions (with oxygen) is much safer.
This is because different species thrive in certain conditions, and the ‘bad guys’ do much better without oxygen.
In the folds of your tent, there isn't going to be much oxygen. So there’s a pretty good chance the mold is dangerous.
When it comes to your tent, it’s best to assume that all mold is dangerous! It’s hard to tell molds apart (even under a microscope!), and some varieties could do serious harm.
In the worst case, you could die from mold-related complications. Black mold is particularly dangerous!
The good news is that you can see mold, and it usually smells awful. So you don’t have to worry about it sneaking up on you!
Preventing Mold in Your Tent
It’s much easier to prevent mold from growing than to deal with it when it’s already present.
Here are some things you can do to avoid getting a moldy tent:
- Make sure your tent is fully dry before you put it away.
- Keep your tent in a watertight box so that it can’t get damp once in storage (essential for keeping your kit in the garage!).
- If possible, keep your tent in the house, where conditions will be drier.
- Take your tent out of its bag every month and air it out, ensuring that it is dry.
- Clean any dirt and grass out of your tent before storage (fungi feed on organic matter).
- Choose a tent that has been treated with mold or mildew prevention.
- Store your tent in a light environment, where fungi don’t do so well.
Cleaning Up Mold in Your Tent
If your tent does have mold, you should have a go at washing it before chucking it away.
Set it up so that you can clean it properly, ideally in your yard. You can also do this in your apartment if you don’t have outdoor space. Just open the windows to be on the safe side.
Here are the steps I would take to clean a moldy tent:
- Set up your tent in the yard
- If you find mold, pop on a mask to protect yourself from the spores while you’re cleaning it. You also might want to wear some sunglasses or goggles to protect your eyes.
- Use a soft brush to brush away any loose mold.
- Use a sponge and warm soapy water to gently wash the moldy areas. (Don’t scrub too hard, or you might end up taking off the UV or waterproof coating.)
- Use an old rag to dry the areas you’ve cleaned.
- Spray the moldy areas with white vinegar mixed with water (about 50-50).
- Let the tent dry and air in the sun, if possible. (The vinegar and sunlight should kill anything lingering!)
- Now is an excellent opportunity to respray your tent with a waterproof coating. This will prevent your tent from leaking, so mold is less likely to be a problem in the future.
- Once everything is dry, put the tent back into its storage bag. (Check the inside of this for mold, too, or the problem might reappear.)
Time to Say Goodbye?
If my tent was absolutely covered with black mold, I might consider throwing it away. It would depend on the situation, though.
For example, if the seams were also pretty shot and if there were any holes or tears, I’d decide that it was time to call it a day.
It’s always best to try to fix gear rather than chucking it away, though. It’s the least we can do for the planet (not to mention our wallets)!
Is a small amount of mold dangerous?
It’s hard to say precisely how much mold is dangerous, but it’s best to avoid exposure altogether. Besides, a small amount could quickly multiply. That means it’s always best to deal with the problem head-on and get it sorted straight away.
In an emergency, can I sleep in a moldy tent?
There is a chance that you won’t notice mold until you’re already at your campsite. In this case, you would have to make the best decision for you. If you’re up a mountain in a blizzard, you’d be better off sleeping in your tent than getting hypothermia. (Vents open, please!)
But if you’re car camping, I would just head home. To avoid disappointment, make sure you set up your tent and check it properly before your trip.
Can I put my moldy tent in the washing machine?
Don’t be tempted to put your tent in the washing machine. All the waterproof coating will wash off, and the seams will get damaged. Even if the tent manages to survive a cycle without any rips, it will be much weaker, and it won’t be waterproof.
Don’t try to tumble dry it, either. After hand washing, you need to hang your tent to dry.
Are mold and mildew the same thing?
Mold and mildew are different kinds of fungi. Mold has a fuzzy appearance, and mildew is more like a powder. Both mold and mildew can be dangerous, so they should both be removed from your tent. White vinegar is a good treatment for them both!
Not all molds are dangerous, but it’s better to be safe than sorry!
I’m studying to be a soil technician, so I look at fungi and bacteria under a ridiculously expensive shadowing microscope. Even with that level of equipment, it can still be hard to identify which fungi are dangerous and which are beneficial.
There’s no way to be sure with the naked eye. But if you sleep in a tent with the wrong type of mold, you could have a pretty horrific reaction. So, don’t risk it.
As long as you take the steps I described to prevent fungal spores from forming, it’s doubtful that mold will ever be a problem for you.
But if it does come up, you can follow the steps in this article to make your tent safe again. (Please wear a mask, or you’re just going to expose yourself to something nasty in the cleaning process!)
And don’t forget to be extra careful if you’re pregnant, as mold spores can be hazardous for unborn babies.
I hope you found this article helpful, and I wish you many happy camping adventures!
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Rachel is a freelance adventure writer and founder of Highly Sensitive Nomad. When she isn’t writing, she can be found wild camping in the mountains and swimming in the lakes of Europe.