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Caring for your Roof Top Tent
by Graham Jackson

Pictures by:
Brian Slobe

“It’s destroyed.” That was my immediate thought after opening the tent. We had closed it up in Durban South Africa under a pouring sky, and then had packed the whole truck into a container for the six-week transit to Colorado. For two long weeks the container had sat in hot, humid conditions in the Caribbean waiting for a hurricane to pass. By any measure this had not been good for the tent. It had about it the musty odor of things too ripe, and brown splotches adorned the surface; things were growing. Even if the stains could be removed, I had doubts of ever being able to crawl inside and find rest surrounded and permeated by that smell.

How wrong I was. Some research provided a cleaning regimen that proved more successful than I could have believed. That coupled with a few tips I had gathered along the way with many years of using roof top tents provides the basis of the care tips listed here, and applies chiefly to poly-cotton canvas tents like those from South Africa.

By nature of their mounting location, roof top tents often get put away wet. It is practically impossible to dry a roof top tent under wet field conditions. If opened and closed every day this can be fine, but if a tent is folded while wet and put into lengthy storage that way then mold will grow. This can leave that expensive tent looking like it spent a lifetime in the trenches.

Zipper care
Usually the first thing to fail on a tent is one of the zippers. This comes from use in dusty environments where the zipper gets no lubrication. It is hard to keep mud and dust away from the zippers, so the best thing to do is add some lubrication. Bees’ wax is a tried and true lubricant tested in many safaris in the African bush. It is available in most organic supermarkets like Whole Foods or Wild Oats. Buy a small block and rub it on the zipper both while open and closed. This should improve the flow of the zip, and make it last a lot longer. If mud and dirt gets ground into the zipper, clean it with a damp cloth or stiff brush and then re-lubricate. The wax also imparts some water protection to the zipper, which can be very welcome in driving rain-storms.

General cleaning
To get rid of dust and general day-to-day grime brushing with a stiff bristled brush or vacuuming will usually do the trick. For dirtier tents or to get a season’s worth of dirt out, start by brushing or vacuuming the loose dirt off. Then use half a cup of Lysol all-purpose cleaner to a gallon of hot water and, using a sponge, wet the tent. Give it a brush and then rinse out with cold or warm water making sure to get all the Lysol out. Dry in the sun. and then re-apply the waterproofing (see below). The rain fly and tent cover can be washed with the same solution of Lysol and hosed or sponged off.

Mold and Mildew removal
A damp tent stored for any length of time will promote the growth of mold and mildew, often staining the tent and giving it the maliferous odor I was reluctant to tolerate. To clean, first open the tent up and brush it with a stiff bristled brush or vacuum to get the loose dirt off. Then make a solution of half a cup of Lysol general purpose cleaner to one gallon of hot water. Sponge this solution on to wet the tent and then brush in with a stiff brush. Rinse with a solution of one-cup lemon juice and one-cup salt to a gallon of hot water. Use enough salt/lemon solution to get all the Lysol out. Leave the tent to air dry in the sun. This last step is very important, as it will promote the destruction of mildew stains. The last step is to re-apply the waterproofing.

Uncoated cotton canvas is waterproof in the same manner that traditional wooden boats are waterproof; the cotton fibers swell when they get wet and seal the weave. Poly-cotton blends do swell to a certain extent, but gain more water resistance from being impregnated with other synthetic materials. The washing procedure above will destroy any waterproof coating so it needs to be re-applied. Some coating will also impart UV protection. Waterproofing solutions can be purchased at most camping supply establishments and include products like Aqua-Tite Waterproofing and 303 Fabric Guard. Applying two coats of the waterproofing agent at 90 degrees to each other will provide the best protection.

With the correct care, a roof top tent can last for decades, providing comfort and security in all conditions. Knowledge on how to care for the tent can also relieve the stress of putting it away in dusty and wet environs. Our tent was looking almost new after a single afternoon of care. Not only were all the stains and the smell gone, but it actually looked like it hadn’t just spent 225 nights of use in adverse African conditions.