How to Waterproof a Canvas Tent: Step-by-Step Instructions

Regular waterproofing keeps any tent more healthy in the long term and ensures it maintains performance in wet conditions. Learn how it’s done for tents made out of canvas in this step-by-step guide.

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
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Waterproofing or “seasoning” your canvas tent may seem like a daunting task… and a big job.

Don’t fret – with the right techniques and a few insider tips, the whole process can be quick and hassle-free.

In this post, we’re going to take you through the steps involved in making sure your “home away from home” is weatherproof and ready for any kind of adventure. By following these steps, you’ll have confidence knowing that you won’t wake up in a puddle in the middle of the night!

What You’ll Need

  • Access to a water supply
  • Canvas waterproofing product
  • Seam sealant
  • An old toothbrush
  • White vinegar
  • A few dry days 
Canvas tent at dusk lit up from inside
It’s important to ‘season’ your canvas tent to keep it as durable as possible, for as long as possible.

Why You Need to Season Your Canvas Tent

While canvas is a naturally waterproof fabric, it isn’t waterproof “from the box”. The reason for this is that the fabric is produced with a loose weave. When washed, the cotton fibers of the weave swell to create a tighter, impermeable weave. Before washing, the minuscule gaps between the fibers will leak when camping in rain.

When you buy a new canvas shelter, therefore, it’s imperative that you “season” it. Seasoning simply means pitching it before your camping trip and giving it a good soaking.

If you use your tent regularly, you’ll also have to reproof it once every year or two so the fabric maintains its water, mold, mildew, and UV resistance. Treating it to an annual clean will also extend its lifespan and enhance breathability.

How to Season a Canvas Tent: Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Set Up Your Tent

To season a canvas tent, you need to get the entire tent wet…twice. To do this, we recommend pitching it in your yard or any other area where you’ll have access to water. It’s also wise, of course, to choose a spot that you don’t mind getting wet.

You’ll need 2 or 3 dry days to complete the seasoning process, so check the weather forecast before you begin.

Tunnel canvas tent with near vertical walls
Make sure to pitch your tent near a water supply. (Photo by Tim Regan / CC BY 2.0)

2. Soak

Now it’s time to soak your tent material thoroughly. We recommend using a hose but you can also do this with a few buckets if you have a helper and a little more time.

Ideally, you should first soak the material in cold water, then hot water, then finish off with more cold water. Doing this will speed up the shrinkage of the fibers of the canvas fabric so there are no tiny holes between them.

3. Check

After soaking your shelter, head inside. Spend five minutes inspecting the fabric for any daylight sneaking through. If you see daylight, you need to repeat Step 2.

4. Dry

Leave your tent to dry in the sun for a full day.

canvas tent pitched in yard
Schedule your canvas waterproofing for a sunny day!

5. Soak Again

Repeat Step 2, above, this time using only cold water and doubling the time you spend soaking the fabric.

6. Test

Throw a willing volunteer inside your shelter. Simulate heavy rain by spraying your hose over it and having the person inside check for leaks.

7. Dry Completely

No leaks? Great! In that case, you’re almost done. Leave your shelter pitched, open the doors, windows, and vents, and let it dry in the sun. Make sure it has dried completely before placing it in storage.

Canvas 'wigwam' style tent with its door open
Let air circulate inside the tent to dry it out completely.

Waterproofing Canvas: Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Choose Your Waterproofing Spray

Silicone spray or fluoropolymer waterproofing products? 

Both are good options, but fluoropolymer-based products like StarBrite or Scotchgard Heavy Duty Water Shield will not only provide water resistance but also protect the fabric against UV damage and stains. 

To waterproof the seams – where leaks are most likely to occur – we recommend the Gear Aid Fast Cure.

2. Lay Your Tent Out

To get started, lay your shelter out on a clean and flat surface. It’s going to be here for a while, so make sure it’s in a spot nobody will have to pass through!

3. Spot Clean Stains

If your tent has any stains from tree sap, oil, or dirt, now’s the time to clean them. 

To do so, mix a quarter cup of vinegar in a liter bottle of warm water and use this with a soft brush (an old toothbrush will work well) to gently scrub out the stains. Alternatively, use a damp sponge with a gentle soap.

4. Apply Your Waterproofing Product

Follow the instructions on your waterproofing product and get down to making your shelter as water-resistant as it was when it left the shelves!

In most cases, this will involve liberally applying a coat of the product using a spray, plant sprayer, or paint roller. If you’re using a water-based solution, you may have to dilute it (usually with 3 parts water to 1 part concentrate) and use your own spray bottle.

For a complete reproof, cover one side of your tent in product, leave it to dry, then flip your shelter over and treat the other side. If you have isolated leaks, you can simply treat these areas alone (and save yourself a lot of time!). 

5. Test

Will your waterproofing treatment ensure you stay dry in wet weather conditions in the great outdoors? Now, not later, is the time to find out! 

Try to simulate heavy rains by spraying your shelter with the hose, using a less powerful flow rate, and squishing the head fitting with your hand. 

When done, check for moisture inside your tent. If you find any, re-apply your product in the leaking areas. If not, it’s time for Step 6!

A canvas bell tent pitched in the rain
Don’t assume your tent is now waterproofed, always do a soak test to check!

6. Dry

As when seasoning your tent, leave your tent pitched, open the doors, windows, and vents, and let it dry in the sun. Make sure it has dried completely before placing it in storage.

Additional Maintenance Tips for a Healthy, Waterproof Canvas Shelter

1. Dry Your Tent Thoroughly After Each Use

Make sure your tent, groundsheet, guy lines, and carry sack are completely dry before you put them in storage. 

If post-trip you throw your tent into your gear closet when still wet or damp, it will develop mold and mildew. These aren’t just unsightly, but can seriously damage the material.

2 Store in a Cool Dry Place

To ensure humidity doesn’t make your tent damp and cause mold or mildew, make sure you store it in a room or cupboard that’s dry and has decent airflow. 

We also recommend storing it in a hard-sided container to help prevent rips and tears.

3. Clean Your Tent Regularly 

How often you need to clean your tent depends on how often you use it and how well you store it. We recommend a cleaning schedule of once per year. If you only use your tent two or three times per year, however, and it doesn’t get too grubby, then once every two years should do. 

Bottom of a canvas tent showing muddy stains
Your tent will inevitably get dirty so remember to schedule in a thorough clean every once in a while.

How to Waterproof a Canvas Tent…

Congratulations! Now you know how to waterproof a canvas tent you’ll have a healthy tent to serve you well on all your upcoming camping adventures!

If you have any questions about this post, drop us a line in the comments box below. And if you’d like to share it with your friends, please do!

Last update on 2023-09-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Kieran Avatar

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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