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Having a sticky tent or rain fly can be quite frustrating to set up. Whether you are working on your own or with help of a fellow camper, having to pull apart the panels because they are tacky and stuck together is a pain. This makes the whole process a lot more complicated and time consuming than it has to be.
A tent or rainfly becomes sticky because the polyurethane coating that was originally applied to the surface as waterproofing has broken down. The waterproofing of a tent can be fixed if you gently clean the tent to remove the “stickiness” then apply waterproofing to the outside.
Tents can last a long time if treated right, and being able to repair or fix any issues can save you money and possibly your next camping trip. Check out these ways to make sure your tent is ready for your next camping trip.
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What Causes A Tent to Become Sticky
The answer to your sticky situation isn’t always the intuitive one. One of the most common causes of a sticky tent is the waterproof coating from the manufacturer breaking down.
Most waterproofing is made of polyurethane, which is essentially liquid plastic. The liquid dries into a waterproof layer that is generally heat resistant as well, and this layer is what protects your tent from the elements while still allowing the nylon or polyester to breathe.
As your tent ages, the polymers that make up polyurethane start to dissociate from each other in a process called delamination. This makes the coating sticky and can make your tent a hassle to set up. Not to mention there can also be an odor that comes along with it, and no one wants to sleep in a smelly tent.
Age isn’t the only thing that can eat up your tent’s coating – not drying it out before you store it can also cause your tent to stick. That’s because when your tent is stored damp the water molecules react with the polyurethane coating and cause it to delaminate. The water isn’t able to evaporate away, and your tent pays the price.
You can also get mold, mildew, and other big issues from storing your tent while wet or damp so you should always try to dry it out first. If that’s not possible, air it out as soon as you can when you get to your destination.
One of the other causes of polyurethane delamination is one you may never have thought of – rolling up your tent too tight. Just like how water molecules can’t evaporate from a damp tent that is stored, gas molecules from the polyurethane coating may not be able to evaporate if your tent is too tight.
The process of off-gassing occurs with almost everything around you. Your furniture, your electronics, your house, your car (think new-car smell) all release gas molecules that make them smell the way they do.
In many cases you can’t smell them because the gas is able to easily evaporate and there’s not enough of it to cause a strong odor. In the case of a tightly rolled tent, the gas molecules can’t escape and they not only smell bad, they can also cause the polyurethane to delaminate.
The trapped gas can also be bad for your health, since the tent coating off-gasses molecules from a type of material called plasticizers that are harmful if inhaled. For
such an easy problem to avoid you’re better off just loosely packing your tent.
How to Remove The Stickiness From A Tent
Maybe you forgot to air your tent out when you got home or it’s been around the block a few times and the coating is starting to stick. Before you go spending the big bucks on a new one, you can try the following tricks to unstick your tent and rain fly.
If your only goal is to make the tent and rain fly less sticky, then you could achieve that by spreading baby powder all over the material. The powder will keep the polyurethane polymers from sticking to each other and let the material pass over itself easily.
While this will get you unstuck, it won’t do anything for your damaged polyurethane coating. This means you’re going to have a bad time if it rains on your next camping trip no matter how easy your tent setup goes. If you’re wanting to fix it up right, you have to start by removing the old polyurethane coat.
One of the easiest ways to get the old waterproofing off is to use a washing machine. The polyurethane is going to be flaking off as the cycle goes so you probably want to do this in a laundromat instead of at home, but all you need to do is run the tent through the cold wash cycle about three times with a mild powdered detergent. Once your tent is all washed up you’ll want to let it air dry.
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Then you should be able to use a soft-bristled brush to scrape off any of the remaining delaminated coating. At this point you’ll be able to see the old coating flaking where it’s still attached, and once you’ve removed the old polyurethane you can use a new sealant on the outside of the tent and rain fly to make them waterproof once again.
If a laundromat isn’t an option and you don’t want to chance it in your own washing machine, you can always break out the elbow grease and get to scrubbing. Soak the tent in warm, soapy water in your bathtub, and use a stiff-bristled brush to scrub off the coating.
Once you’ve finished scrubbing off the old polyurethane you’ll want to use cold water to rinse both the polyurethane flakes and the soap off of your tent. It may take multiple rinses to get everything clean but once it is you can let the tent air dry. If the bag and rain fly are also sticky, repeat the process with them. Once all of the pieces are dried then you can move on to resealing everything.
Cleaners for Washing a Tent
There are several different options to consider when deciding on the best cleaner for your tent. Powder detergent is going to be your best bet because it is effective and non-abrasive. Liquid detergent can also be used, but it’s going to clog the pores in the fabric and cause other issues. Personally, I’d stick to the powder.
Water and vinegar is another option but your tent won’t smell the best afterwards, and the same goes for ammonia. With all of the cleaners you run the risk of discoloring the fabric, but ammonia is especially likely to change your tent’s color.
If you use something like ammonia or vinegar you’ll want to make sure that all of the cleaner is thoroughly rinsed out after you get the old coating off, and it’s probably best to wear gloves no matter what cleaner you choose.
For the best ways to clean off every day dirt and grime while keeping your tent looking and performing at its best check out our post on How To Keep Your Tent Clean While Camping.
Waterproofing a Tent and Rainfly
Once your tent is scrubbed, rinsed, and air dried, you’re ready to put a new coat of waterproofing on it. Tent Sure is one popular product you can try, and it also goes by SEAM GRIP +TF. This polyurethane-based product sprays right on the tent and dries to form a new protective layer.
Nikwax Tent & Gear is a product that provides water and UV protection to your tent fabric while leaving your tent breathable – a good thing to have to avoid condensation buildup. It also comes in a spray that you just coat the outside with, or you can also get it as a liquid that you use a rag to apply. It’s not polyurethane based, but that’s part of why it’s more breathable and it still keeps the water out.
Kiwi Camp Dry is the final brand I have for you to check out, and their products are actually the highest rated for value, effectiveness, and ease of use. It’s also not polyurethane based but it still does a great job at waterproofing your tent.
When using a spray waterproofing product be sure to avoid being too close while you spray or runs will develop that will never dry and become sticky themselves. If you decide to use a paint on alternative, apply it with the tent on a flat surface, not set up. This will allow it to be applied more easily and evenly.
All and all no matter which product you choose, you’re going to want to give it ample opportunity to dry before you store or use your tent again.
Sealing the Seams
For stitched seams, they’re going to need a little extra love to stay waterproofed. Once they’re cleaned and dried, you can use a seam sealer like Gear Aid Seam Grip or Peregrine McNett Seam Grip.
These products come with an applicator brush that you just attach right to the tube, then use it to apply the sealant down the length of the seam. You’ll need about 1oz of sealant per foot of seams, so plan to have a lot on hand – especially if you’re also sealing your rain fly. Let the sealant dry, and you should be good to go for your next trip.
Preventing Your Tent From Becoming Sticky
As I mentioned, age, being stored damp, and not being able to off-gas are all reasons that your tent will turn sticky. You can’t prevent your tent from getting old, but you can identify problem sections before your whole tent turns into a sticky mess. These areas can be spot treated with a waterproofer right over top of the old polyurethane in many cases.
As for storing the tent damp, like I said avoid it if you can and plan to deal with it if you can’t. The last thing you want to do is store a damp tent for months on end when just pitching it for a day or two in your backyard is all you needed to do to avoid sticky fabric.
Finally, you can give your tent the opportunity to off-gas by storing it hanging up if you have space. Otherwise, don’t roll it up too tightly, store it in a mesh bag or other breathable bag, and plan on unpacking and repacking it periodically.
The most likely cause of your sticky tent is the original polyurethane coating going bad. You can remove the old coating using a powder detergent and either your laundry machine or a scrub brush, then reapply a waterproofing coat and seam sealant. As with most things, however, preventing the problem is easier than dealing with it once it happens.