Stinky Motorhome or Camper? How to Eliminate Odors in Your RV

RVs and Campers having smaller interior living spaces and are much more prone to unwelcome more pungent odors quickly. To mitigate and control what’s stinking up your RV, you’ll first need to know identify the odor and where they are coming from. Then, you’ll need to know how to tackle nasty odors in your motorhome or camper and keep them from coming back. But reaching for toxic sprays and chemicals isn’t the answer.

But here’s the thing. The secret to knocking out repulsive smells in your RV is not mask the odors with toxic sprays or air fresheners. They’re simply unhealthy; giving you more than a headache.

So, we’ll show you how to find the culprits with several remedies how to eliminate odors in your RV, motorhome, van, camper or fifth wheel.

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Stinky RV? How to Tackle and Eliminate Odors in Your RV

What’s causing that nasty smell?

First, you’ll need to distinguish what the odor smells like or is. Does the odor smell like sewage  or rotten eggs? Or does it smell like something died? Perhaps it smells like a wet dog or even dog farts? Or does the cat box need cleaning? But maybe it’s the crab cakes you cooked for dinner. Maybe it’s just your travel partner’s smelly garlic breath or stinky feet?

As you see, nasty odors come from all sorts of different sources. Detecting what the smell actually is will lead you to eliminating that awful smell.

Locate the source of odor

Once you have determined what the odor is, then you need to find out where the source of the odor is coming from. Oftentimes, high concentrated odors are dead giveaways of what and where the source of odors could be.

For example, if it smells like sewer, the odor is probably tied to your RV sewer system, commode or drains and plumbing. If your RV smells like rotten eggs, then, you’ll want to check your propane fittings for gas leaks. And, if your camper has a high concentration of mildew odor, your RV may have a leak somewhere or condensation and moisture issue.

But, if your motorhome or camper trailer smells like something may have died in it, locating the source could end up being a little more extensive. It may be that you have a dead rodent somewhere in your RV. It could be in the underbelly, in one of your basement compartments or even in the walls. Or, it could very well be your teenager’s hidden dirty socks.

Eliminate Odors - Stinky Feet

And if it just smells like old garbage, well, that’s probably what it is. But, those nasty odors could just be coming from your two-week pile of laundry, cat litter box, smelly hiking boots, old food in the fridge or something you just cooked for dinner.

Eliminate the culprit

Now that you’ve found what is causing the odor, the next thing is to remove the source. It can be as simple as taking out the trash, taking the dirty laundry to the laundromat, emptying and scrubbing the kitty litter box or simply taking the dog to the groomer. And, perhaps you need to relocate those smelly hiking boots to a small plastic tote outside your door.

Combat Odors - Food Odor

Food and Cooking Odors

If you’re any type of decent cook, you’d know that certain foods cause odors. We love cabbage, broccoli, onions, garlic and fish! But dang! They sure do smell up the joint! So, we try (I said ‘try’) to cook them outside in a pan on our mini camp stove or when I can open the windows and door. But if weather isn’t favorable to do that, I don’t hold back because really, they are super healthy foods.

But let’s not forget that some odors may be coming from your RV refrigerator. When’s the last time you gave it a good clean-out? Big smelly culprits are cabbage, brussel sprouts, broccoli, various cheeses, and leftovers that are past their prime. So, keep after your refrigerator and freezer contents and discard old foods to alleviate nasty odors. Watch for expiration dates.

Combat Odors - Pet Odor

Pet Odor

If you have dogs, you’ll know pretty quickly when it’s time to take your dog to get a fresh bath and groomed.

If you have cats like us, it’s important to regularly scoop your cat’s litter box. In small spaces, even a day’s worth of their potty and poop can really stink up the RV. We scoop twice a day and sprinkle a little plain baking soda in on the remaining cat litter. It’s important to bag up their soiled litter and dispose of it properly in the trash receptacles. We also do a thorough scrubbing of their cat box at least once a month with hot water with pet-friendly disinfecting cleaner while hooked up at a campground. Make certain you rinse the litter box well so your kitty doesn’t get sick.

And don’t forget to regularly clean your pet’s dishes. If your pet’s breath or body smells bad, it would be wise to schedule them a visit to the Veterinarian. They may have some medical issues causing them to smell unpleasant.

Sewer Smell

If the odors smells like sewer gas, it may be time to dump and clean your black and gray tanks. Committing to a regular tank maintenance schedule is important to prevent buildup in your black and gray tanks.

Here’s a great how-to video on how to clean and maintain your RV tanks:

You can use a commercial black tank treatment. However, in our opinion, watch the video first to see why we use the geo method instead (recipe below):

AOL - Black Tank Geo Method

Your shopping list to make your own geo method black tank treatment:

Also, keeping all of your interior drains clean will keep them from harboring smelly odors. After dishwashing or before disconnecting your RV sewer hose and water from the pedestal, flush your drains with lots of clean water to push dirty water out of the P-trap. (P-traps are U-shaped pipes in toilets and underneath sinks that hold a small amount of water that prevents sewer gases from rising up into your home through the drain). Then, start by pouring a really hot water (not boiling) down the drain to loosen up dried content. Next, pour a mixture of one cup baking soda and one cup vinegar into the drain. Allow to sit and bubble for about an hour. Then flush again with lots of clean water.

Propane Odor

Propane will smell like rotten eggs. Important to know though, propane gas has no odor. What you are smelling is Mercaptan, a chemical additive propane companies add which gives it that nauseating odor.

Odor Control - Propane

If you do smell this odor near your stove, furnace or other appliances that use propane to operate, inspect the pilot light or burner valve to make certain they’re fully closed. If they are, it may also be the gas line, regulator or fittings. Make certain the main valve is fully open. Never operate an RV propane system with partially open valves. You can monitor your propane levels via bluetooth on your smartphone; making sure you’re not losing propane from leaks.

That said, propane odor should dissipate within a few hours. If it doesn’t, contact your gas company and report the issue. There may be a a bigger issue such as an extensive leak. If you or any of your travel partners are suffering from headaches, dizziness, nausea, or flu-like symptoms, immediately call 911, as these are sign of carbon monoxide poisoning. Never allow you or them to fall asleep. Leave your RV immediately and wait for authorities to arrive to assess what you need to do next.

Pest Control in RV - Mouse Rodent

Rodent Droppings and Urine

I’d be lying if I told you we’ve never had unwelcome outside visitors who wanted a warm place to slumber and to sneak some chow. In fact, a couple years ago, we had an unfortunate incident of a mouse who decided to play Russian roulette with our furnace burner. Sadly, he was charred to a crisp which caused a nasty odor during his extermination. The next morning, Dan had to take the entire furnace apart to find what was left of him.

But we’ve heard stories of RV owners being stricken with a horrible dead smell in their RVs only to discover it was buried deep into their RV’s walls, flooring, underbelly or unreachable voids. But, this can be avoidable by making certain holes are plugged and food sources are removed. Again, make sure your dry stores (food) is properly sealed in pest-proof containers.

When dealing with unwelcome pests and what they leave behind, you need to protect yourself and your family. Rodent excrement and feces can carry disease and/or cause serious illness. Make certain you wear disposable gloves and proper respiratory protection equipment when removing any remnants to protect yourself from the Hantavirus. Infection with hantavirus comes from contact with infected rodents and can develop into Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS), which can be life threatening.

Typically, an N95-rated dust mask is considered sufficient protection against such viruses. Toxic particles from mouse, rat or even pack rat feces become airborne if they are swept or vacuumed, so spraying with a mixture of bleach and water is recommended before wiping down the areas. But if you are worried about airborne particles as you are entering a space to be cleaned, it certainly makes sense to wear a respirator.

Use a disinfectant cleaner and throw away all evidence, including food he may have touched. After which, closely monitor possible return of his friends and family using humane mouse traps.

Insect pests

There are insect pests that emit an odor either inside or outside your motorhome or camper. We mistakingly squished a Stink Bug in our motorhome. Seconds later, we smelled a pungent odor. We learned that Stink Bugs release an eponymous smell that keeps predators away; much like what skunks do.

Eliminate Odors - Stink Bug

As with any bug in your RV, your first instinct is to squish them. However, when disturbed or smashed, stink bugs that nasty odor from their bodies. If you find several, suck them up with your vacuum cleaner. But, immediately dispose of the vacuum bag to prevent their odor from permeating the bag that will eventually stink up your RV.

If you don’t want to drag your vacuum out, it’s best to deal with them on a one by one basis. You can also spread Diatomaceous Earth. This earth-friendly pesticide powder made from natural rock can be placed at entryways like doors and windows both inside and outside and breaks down the stink bug’s protective exoskeleton so they eventually die of dehydration. And it’s safe to use around pets and children because it’s food grade.

But seriously, if you’d prefer not contending with pest removal, leave it up to the professionals.

So now that we’ve discussed the several causes for unwelcome odors in your RV or camper, let’s now talk about what you can do to tack the odors themselves.

Mitigate Moisture 

You may have heard or read that charcoal can be used to remove harmful pollutants, allergens and bacteria from the air. Well, it’s true! Charcoal also prevents mold and mildew by absorbing moisture and trapping the impurities from the location it’s placed in. However, you can’t use just any charcoal. It must be activated charcoal which is more porous. Activated charcoal neutralizes odors including pet odor, mold and human waste, and it’s much safer than chemically saturated odor neutralizers.

Natural bamboo charcoal air purifying bags are ten times more porous than regular charcoal. That means when you use activated charcoal bags, you’ll be getting one of natures’ most potent and effective charcoal air freshener solutions. You can use them in your motorhome or camper, toad or tow vehicle, litter box location and even your bag you take to the gym. They are also helpful to use in your storage containers and your RV’s basement storage compartments.

For more moisture mitigation tips, we highly recommend checking out our article on How to Stop Condensation in your RV.

Air your RV out

Once you know what the smell is and where it’s originating, airing out your RV is your next step to getting rid of the odor. Open all your windows if the weather permits. And if your RV or camper has a fantastic fan, it might be time to flip that switch to turn it on.

But if it’s darn cold out or it’s raining like the big dog, you may want to invest in a small portable air purifier with a hepa filter that you can relocate often in your motorhome or camper.

Once a week, I like to take all of our pillows and smack them together outside to pound all the lint out. I’ll also place them on the picnic table to air out and let the sun’s UV rays beat on them. I will occasionally set out our throw rugs to air them out also.

Combat Odors - Open Window Air Out

Deep Clean

Part of eliminating the source of odors is to do a thorough cleaning. This includes cleaning trash cans, toilets, sinks, floors, etc. Everywhere food or waste can come into contact. But that deep cleaning doesn’t just apply to the inside of your RV. An occasional cleaning of exterior compartments is necessary too. This goes for cleaning your grill.

In the case of acquiring unwelcome rodents, our number one suggestion is making certain they can’t enter. Also, removing all potential food sources. After our experience of a mouse infiltration in our former fifth wheel, I now store all of our baking supplies like flour, sugar, boxed mixes, etc. in clear, vacuum-seal, dry food storage containers. While they may be an added upfront expense, it sure saves on having to rebuy all of my food supplies as well as the nasty cleanup if I didn’t have them.

Odor Control - Essential Oils Diffuser

Using Essential Oils

Once you’ve aired out your motorhome or towable RV but remnants of unpleasant odors still remain, there are products out there to make your interior spaces smell nice again. However, be careful when selecting toxic chemical laden products that can be harmful to your family and pets.

I prefer a more natural remedy. A simple essential oil diffuser and high quality therapeutic air-cleansing essential oils will do the trick. After cooking odiferous dishes,  I will love to diffuse Thieves oil. Several of the oils found in thieves oil have antimicrobial properties. This means they may help kill bacteria, fungi, or viruses when people use them topically on the skin or small cuts and wounds. I’ll also wipe down my counters with a clean damp cloth or sponge and Thieves cleaner.

I caution those of you whom have pets in your RV though when using any essential oils. There are some that are extremely toxic to use around dogs and cats, so always do your diligent research before using them in the same spaces you share with your pets.

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So, that’s a wrap on how to eliminate odors in your RV. Know that you don’t have to put up with the stink and unpleasant odors. Knowing how to recognize where those nasty odors come from and how to eliminate them will soon make your RV smell like sunshine and roses.

More Great RV Maintenance Articles:

RV Hot Water System Cleaning and Maintenance

How to Maximize Efficiency of Your RV Refrigerator

How-To Properly Clean Your RV Fresh Water Tank

RV Maintenance: Air Conditioning Vets and Filters

How to Stop Condensation in Your RV


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