When you’re living in an RV with your spouse, your two children and pets, you quickly notice any new unwelcome smells. Sometimes though, it takes a minute or two to figure things out and realize those may not be normal RV smells. I’ll be discussing 6 RV smells you may encounter and what they mean.

What's that Smell? 6 RV Smells You Need to Know.
It’s not all flowers

Some things are obvious and universal – like when someone has left the popcorn in the microwave too long. The stench is atrocious, disgusting, and it permeates everything. Not to mention, usually sends the smoke alarm into a shrieking rage… battery deleted for now. Other smells you have to tolerate, and some require serious investigation. All are things that can raise the question – What’s that RV smell?

Let’s get started!

1. That base, wet newspaper smell, something’s not right.

It starts with a curious sniff, that something is not so fresh.  You may be boondocking, or you may have full hookups, either way, check your kitchen and bathroom sinks, and shower/tub.  Your grey tank may be full.  Typically, when we have full hookups our grey tank drain valve is open. We go ahead and close it when the time for dumping the black tank is near.  You want to have a nice big charge of grey water ready to help flush the black tank content out of your sewer hose.  Anyhow, perhaps you’ve waited too long to unleash the black tank and flush with the grey.  Now’s the time to do the job.  However… if your grey drain is open, and now you have water backing up into your shower, you may have a bigger problem. Any how, be sure to go by your local Wal-Mart, Camping World, Campground Office or RV supply store and pickup some holding tank deodorant.

RV Smells
This is the kind we use

2. The back of the nose, base of the brain fear inducing assault – plastic smell.

Burning plastic, so noxious because, well the fumes are noxious. I’ve experienced this smell in two ways – cooking on high heat with cheap pots and pans, or due to an electrical fire/issue.  In either case you have to act quickly because you may have a serious emergency on your hands.

Typically however the stove is a running a bit too hot, and those cheaply made pot handles are heating up and outgassing. If you haven’t experienced this unpleasant synthetic smell… can I have your kitchen tools?  The smell retreats as the pot handles cool down and you promise yourself to invest in better kitchen tools.

The other source can be quite serious, an electrical short or fire could be underway.  It’s an all hands on deck moment. Get the kids out of the RV, locate the pets and be ready to put them in your tow vehicle or dinghy.  Start shutting down your electrics and investigate your RV thoroughly.  Get under the cushions, and underneath the RV. Check wiring to cell phone chargers, computers, and appliances. If you can’t find the source and the smell dissipates continue testing the functionality of all lights, cables, and appliances one at a time. Check your GCFI outlets and ensure they test right as well.  You can’t afford to let this one slide.

3.  Are we cooking brakes for dinner?

Now this is a “What’s That RV Smell” that I am especially paranoid about.  I’ve only ever owned 1 brand new car for myself, so I have a long history and especially sensitive nose for automobile problems. It comes from owning a Fiero, an International Scout II, a Ford Mustang, and our beloved Subaru Outback that a dealer killed the wiring on for us. If you’re travelling and you start to smell brakes, you don’t have to get too paranoid, immediately anyway. Often times if you’re towing down the highway and traffic is moving along, you won’t ever smell brakes. If you’re in stop and go traffic however, you are likely to be working your brakes heavily. It could be that semi-tractor up ahead, but it could be you and it doesn’t hurt to pull off the highway inspect your Tow Vehicle/Trailer/RV and let your brakes cool. Go grab yourself a coke, and then get back on the road after you’ve had a cool down period.

RV Smells

4. Ok, who did the No. 2?

Unfortunately, everybody eats, so everybody poops. That includes the cats. If little Johnny or Susie just took care of business, things will clear up in short order. If the stench remains however, check the cat’s litter box, there may be a surprise waiting for you, and that smell isn’t going away until you remove it. Don’t count on your wife to do it. It’s your job, you know. Yeah.

5.  Ok, REALLY NOW, what the hell died in the bathroom? The Best of the RV Smells…

An especially odoriferous toilet situation that doesn’t clear up can be a sign that it’s past the time to dump the black tank. Perhaps the toilet gurgle sounds just a little different than before, and you haven’t taken action on the impending doom. Or perhaps, the smell seems to get worse when you click the exhaust fan on, and it just seems to draw the black death up from the toilet. Get to it!

Things can get complicated here.

5a.  Easy:  Dump the black tank and follow through with the grey.

5b.  Moderate:  Dump the black tank, follow through with the grey, and if equipped, use your RV’s black tank flush mechanism. If you have it, it’s a non-descript hose connection on the exterior, likely opposite your other connections where you can hook up a hose and literally flush the black tank. MAKE SURE THE BLACK DRAIN IS OPEN!!!

5c.  The Horror: Oh no. Mr. Man left the black tank drain valve open for the last who knows how long. While you, the kids, the cousins who came to visit, and the hubby, have been doing your daily musings on the porcelain/plastic throne, the black tank drain valve has been left open.  All the solids have been piling up, and the liquids draining away. You all have been creating your very own Poo Pyramid, and may God have mercy on your souls. I don’t know what to tell you here other than try everything.  Just flow water in there and let it sit for an hour or two then dump. Make sure your sewer connections are tight. No Joy?  Bacteria digester, water and time. We’ve read recommendations to dump ice and water into the black tank and go for a drive in hopes of breaking things up.  That’s right. The sooner you disconnect from ground support, hook up to your truck and go for an exciting drive around the suburbs, the sooner you’ll defeat the tyrannical poo pyramid.  It’s your own fault you know. After you’ve cleared everything up, go ahead and put some of that tank deodorizer down the drain…

RV Smells

6.  Various musty RV smells.

Now we’re in potluck potpourri here. Your RV may not be your 3,000′ square foot 3-4 bedroom 3 bath home, but there are a surprising number of places for things to hide.  If you have a musty smell you can’t defeat by doing the laundry, clearing the toilet and litter box, and deodorizing the tanks, it’s time for  a  field day.

Food:  Check all fruits and vegetables.  We had a bag of potatoes in the house less than 4 days and they had started to spoil. Total shock, but the smell was powerful, and the resolution was immediate.

Nooks and Crannies:  The kids are masters at getting crumbs everywhere, and occasionally you find a half eaten sandwich, or shriveled up apple core growing mold.  Have the kids help and dump over their bedding. You never know what they may be sleeping with.

Dead bugs? If you had a roach issue in the past, you may have a bunch of roach carcasses being heated repeatedly by your propane heater. EWW! Pull out drawers, get the gloves on, your breathing mask and eye wear.  Time to get funky and clean house. Good luck and hope you don’t find a dead mouse!

And remember to use a flashlight. It can get really dark in some of the corners.


It’s not uncommon to be relaxing outside when a new arrival comes in or a neighbor departs to catch a whiff of the stank darkness. Conduct regular visual inspections of your area and you’re good. But sometimes, and here’s the special treat from your campground, the smell is sticking around for a few hours!  Well as happened to us recently, our very efficient campground lawn mower folks came around one day and beat the crap (hah, see what I did there) out of our sewer hose!  Don’t know how they did it, just know that we had several small gashes on our sewer hose.

RV Smells
This is the one that we successfully used until the maintenance crew incident. You can buy it HERE, without the clear adapter.

The grass around the RV sewer hose looked great, and our sewer hose did a great job sprinkling grey water as if it was a fountain at the Bellagio, but it was not fun having to run to WalMart to spend $30+ on a crap transport system for no good reason. The joy of RVing!

So, what RV smells do you have to contribute to the conversation?  Let us know and share in the comments below!

You too can be an ambassador of stank!


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Here are the 6 RV smells that we have encountered as full time RVers. We figured out what they all mean and how to get rid of them!
Here are the 6 RV smells that we have encountered as full time RVers. We figured out what they all mean and how to get rid of them!

Robert – who has written posts on Exploring the Local Life.

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