Turtles and tortoises are among the most common of all pet reptiles.
There are 356 different species around the globe, occupying habitats ranging from the open ocean to the most arid deserts.
A wide range of species are kept as pets, but these tend to fall into three categories:
- Aquatic – Softshell and Mata-mata turtles
- Terrestrial – Tortoises
- Semi-aquatic – Sliders, cooters, musk turtles, and terrapins
Each group requires a vastly different tank setup, and it’s important to consider your individual species’ preferred habitat on top of this when building a turtle tank.
Join as we showcase some homemade turtle tank ideas that work well for certain species.
Table of Contents
What You’ll Learn
In this article, you’ll learn how to create a paradise for your pet turtle, whether it’s a terrestrial or aquatic species.
We’ll discuss the basics of putting together a good turtle tank, such as:
- Size – How to choose a tank of appropriate size.
- Lighting – The kinds of lights your pets need (and why).
- Substrate – How to choose and why it matters.
- Temperature – How to control ambient temperature and create a basking area.
- DIY Turtle Tank Ideas – Ideas for crafting attractive turtle tank decor.
- Indoor vs. Outdoor Enclosures – For terrestrial species only.
…and much more!
You’ll learn how to provide an environment that mimics the natural conditions that your animal is best adapted for.
This will help you to ensure the health and wellbeing of your pet.
Purchasing an animal that may outlive you (such as the Aldabra giant tortoise, Aldabrachelys gigantea) is a huge commitment that requires thought and planning.
Though smaller species have shorter lifespans, even the ubiquitous red-eared slider can live for 30 years!
Ensure that you are ready to take on a commitment of AT LEAST two decades before bringing a turtle home.
Turtles also have greater space requirements than other reptiles.
Some species may start out small and easy-to-keep, but need a far larger and more expensive tank later on.
Ensure that you have enough money to shell out (pun intended) on an expensive tank setup if that’s what your chosen species requires.
If all of this sounds manageable to you, then read on to learn how to create a home for your pet.
The Basics of a Good Turtle Setup
Each turtle setup must be tailored to the species it is intended for. There are a few basic rules that are pretty much universal:
- Your tank must be secure enough to prevent escape.
- Your tank must contain an appropriate substrate for your species
- Your turtle must have enough room to move freely around its environment.
- Turtle tanks must provide a suitable temperature range (thermal gradient) for your animal to thrive.
- All indoor turtle tanks must include suitable UVA and UVB lighting to keep your turtles healthy and have a 12-hour light-dark cycle.
- All turtle tanks must provide adequate access to land and water to mimic a species’ natural habitat. This setup may entail a fully aquatic (aquarium), partially aquatic (aquarium with terrestrial basking platform), or fully terrestrial environment.
- Keep all turtle tanks clean to reduce the risk of infectious disease. For terrestrial species, this entails spot cleaning regularly and changing substrate. For aquatic/semi-aquatic species, aquariums will require regular water changes.
Aquatic Turtle Tank Ideas
Coming up with aquatic turtle tank ideas and preparing an aquatic or semi-aquatic tank is not much different than designing a fish tank.
The main difference is that semi-aquatic species will need some kind of landmass for basking.
Keep reading for some additional turtle aquarium ideas.
Your first consideration when choosing between turtle tanks will be the size.
You’ll want to make sure your aquarium is large enough for your animal to be comfortable.
The general rule to follow is that you need 10-15 gallons of aquarium per inch of turtle. The bigger your animal – the bigger the tank!
So if you’ve bought a juvenile turtle, you’ll want to match the tank size to its future adult length.
Check out our list of turtle species that stay small if you’re looking for a more compact and affordable setup.
Also, check that the aquarium glass is at least 0.4 inches thick and that the tank is deep enough for your turtles to swim freely (at least 2x the turtle’s length at full, adult size).
Like their terrestrial cousins, semi-aquatic turtles need the right kind of light for a healthy life.
They require both UVA and UVB lights, which should be placed directly above the basking area.
Ensure that the basking light is properly secured and doesn’t fall into the water – otherwise, it will electrocute your turtle!
One lamp which will meet all of your turtle’s needs is a Mercury Vapor Lamp. It provides UVA, UVB, and heat.
It’s by far the best choice if you’d like to keep things simple.
These lamps can take a toll on your energy bill. If you’re feeling frugal, it might be best to go with a separate UVB and halogen basking light combo.
Whichever option you choose, make sure your lights are on a timer to mimic the natural day-night cycle.
Your turtle should get at least 10 -12 hours of darkness each day.
Heating and Filtration
Depending on your chosen species, you may need to use an aquarium heater to maintain a comfortable water temperature.
The Red-eared slider is one species that require heated water in many instances.
A standard, submersible aquarium heater is more than sufficient for turtle tanks.
It’s a good idea to provide some kind of barrier to prevent your turtle from damaging its aquarium heater.
You can use PVC pipe to create a protective housing or separate part of your aquarium for this purpose.
Again, some species are fine at room temperature, so do your homework before turning up the heat!
A filter is essential for any aquatic or semi-aquatic turtle tank.
Turtles produce lots of waste and can become sick if kept in dirty water. Without a filter, contaminated water can quickly become a problem.
There are A LOT of different filter options available from aquatics stores, some of which are designed explicitly for turtles.
Remember that turtles do produce more waste – on average – than fish.
This fact means that you’ll need a more powerful filter for a turtle tank than for a fish tank of a similar size.
As a rule of thumb, look for a filter with a “filter capacity“ two or three times higher than your tank size.
Shopping for an aquarium filter may feel daunting.
We suggest consulting an aquarist in your local aquarium store for detailed advice and filter recommendations.
Your aquarium filter should be running at all times.
For the base of your turtle aquarium, you need to decide whether to opt for plain glass or substrate.
Many aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles do well without any substrate at all!
That makes things easy for keepers and eliminates the threat of your turtle consuming indigestible particles.
Still, a plain glass floor may be aesthetically unappealing to some keepers.
Using a substrate can provide more natural surroundings (as opposed to a glass floor) for your pet and help to create a more attractive-looking tank for display.
The best substrate options for aquatic turtles are riverbed sand or pebbles.
Pebbles must be large enough to avoid being accidentally swallowed by your turtles when they’re eating.
Indoor Turtle Tank Ideas (Terrestrial)
An indoor enclosure will be the easiest option for those who live in colder climates or do not have the outdoor space to house their new pet.
Your turtle can still feel like they are in the great outdoors as long as you provide them with the proper setup in their turtle terrarium.
Consider these indoor turtle tank ideas.
When comparing housing options for terrestrial species, most people may believe a glass vivarium is the best option.
Keep in mind that tortoises are larger than turtles, on average, and have higher spatial requirements than other, similarly-sized reptiles.
That’s why many choose to build an outdoor enclosure for their pet.
An indoor glass aquarium intended for a tortoise would end up weighing a tonne and costing a fortune.
There are still good options for those who wish to keep their tortoise indoors due to an unfavorable climate or lack of outdoor space.
For example, commercially manufactured tubs (such as your typical Rubbermaid) are a much more affordable and lightweight investment.
You will want to ensure that the tub is between 60 – 160 gallons for a smaller species and >260 gallons for larger species.
You may also want to consider a “tortoise table” if you have a young or hatchling tortoise.
Tortoise tables are a great option if you want to acclimatize your pet to hand-feeding.
Just keep in mind that these are best for European turtles and not those from humid, tropical climates.
Neither of these options will provide enough room for the largest tortoises (such as Aldabras), and so an indoor enclosure is not an option for these species.
The best place in your home for the turtle enclosure will depend on your needs. There are certain areas to avoid, such as garages (due to vehicle fumes).
Avoid rooms with highly variable temperatures, such as basements and conservatories.
Other than that, you can put your tank wherever you’re least likely to trip over it!
One of the most critical parts of your enclosure will be the temperature gradient.
Because turtles, like all reptiles, are cold-blooded, they rely on their external environment to maintain their optimal temperature.
This means that your tank will need to have different sections for your tortoise to choose from – one warmer and the other cooler.
For an indoor enclosure, you will need to rely solely on artificial heating to create a suitable basking area. There are several options for heat sources to choose from.
The best option for most turtle enthusiasts is a combination lamp that emits both UV light and heat.
That will tick the boxes for your turtle’s heat and light requirements (something we will discuss later).
Make sure to place the lights at the correct distance from the basking area. You can refer to the instructions which should come with your purchase.
Note: The light mustn’t be too close to the turtle’s shell when it’s basking.
The only downside with these lights is that you will need to replace them regularly, which can become costly.
Those looking for longevity may go for Ceramic infra-red (IR) dull emitters.
They can last up to 15 years and save money in the long run – especially for large enclosures. These lights are powerful and a great source of basking heat for turtles.
You should take care with these ceramic lights, as they run rather hot and will cause severe burns instantly upon contact.
Proper installation, as well as fire safety, are key.
These lights are not suitable for juvenile turtles, as they can cause overheating.
Generally, turtle owners should avoid heat rocks, heat pads, and radiant heat panels.
These have their uses in maintaining ambient temperature and humidity but are not suitable for a turtle’s basking environment.
Whichever heat source you choose, you must place it correctly in the turtle’s tank.
Make sure that only half of the enclosure is heated, whereas the other remains cool.
Doing so will create a temperature gradient, allowing your turtle to move around and avoid overheating (a behavior known as thermoregulation).
The basking area should be somewhere around 90F – though this will vary by species.
The cooler half should be around 70F.
Again, make sure to customize these temperatures to the specific needs of your species.
Remember to buy a thermometer for your turtle’s home, too, and keep a close eye on the temperature.
That will help you regulate the turtle’s environment and keep it comfortable.
Since the goal is to mimic a natural environment, you will need to turn off your heat sources at night.
You can do this manually every evening. If that’s too much work, you can also purchase a timer for your lights.
Don’t worry; your tortoise will be comfortable at room temperature while it sleeps!
Turtles have specific lighting requirements. When purchasing a lamp for the enclosure, make sure it emits both UVA and UVB light.
Some lights emit only UVA light but not UVB, so you need to check the label before buying.
This feature is important because UVB light stimulates the production of vitamin D3, which is vital for the turtle’s bone health.
UVA light is said to stimulate the turtle’s appetite.
We recommend purchasing a product specifically developed for reptiles to ensure that it provides all the light needed to maintain your pet’s health.
Keep in mind that just like the heat source, lights will need to be turned off at night to mimic the turtle’s natural habitat.
The animal should receive 8-10 hours of light and warmth each day to stay happy and healthy!
Several types of substrates will make your terrestrial turtle’s home comfortable.
It’s essential to do your research as whatever you choose will impact your pet’s health.
It’s important to know that tortoises will try to consume any substrate that you put in the tank. That’s why we need to pay extra attention to potential health hazards.
- Wood chips – An excellent and affordable choice for substrate, but make sure the woodchips come from untreated wood. The biggest concern with this choice is ingestion. Woodchips can pierce the intestine if the tortoise consumes them.
- Straw pellets – These can be a great substrate as they’re easy for turtles to dig in. When dry, they are too large to consume, which limits the risk of impaction. The downside is that they turn moldy relatively quickly.
- Soil or loam-based substrate – These come the closest to imitating the turtle’s natural environment and may look quite lovely in your tank. Just make sure it doesn’t contain any fertilizer or pesticides. If the soil gets too muddy, you can add a bit of peat moss to absorb the moisture. Note that a humid environment may be unsuitable for desert species.
Important Considerations for Outdoor Enclosures
It’s essential to make sure that you live in an area that is a comfortable temperature for your tortoise before bringing them outdoors.
Cold temperatures or lack of sufficient shade can be fatal for cold-blooded animals, such as tortoises.
If you do live in a warm climate suitable for your chosen tortoise species, there are many benefits to having an outdoor enclosure.
Firstly, your pet will reap the health benefits of a natural day/night cycle and exposure to unfiltered, natural sunlight.
The UVA and UVB rays of the sun promote vitamin synthesis and are great for your pet’s health.
Second, outdoor enclosures can be much larger without breaking the bank.
A large enclosure provides your pet with more space to roam (and greater enrichment). Larger enclosures are also easier to keep clean.
There are a few drawbacks that are unique to outdoor enclosures.
Perhaps the most crucial drawback to consider is that turtles kept outdoors have a greater chance of escape.
Upon leaving their enclosure, tortoises become extremely difficult to find.
We recommend extending your enclosure walls below ground level to prevent tortoises from burrowing underneath.
Burrowing is a common method of escape. Also, check your perimeter walls regularly for damage or decay.
Another drawback is that severe weather (flooding, cold snaps, heatwaves) can potentially harm a pet kept in the outdoor environment.
Keep an eye on the forecast, and be prepared to take your tortoise indoors if necessary.
It’s also possible for other animals – such as rodents – to enter your tortoise enclosure and harm your pet.
If other animals become an issue, move your pet indoors.
Note: Semi-aquatic turtles such as red-eared sliders should NOT be kept in outdoor enclosures. They have a strong tendency to escape and can become established as invasive species in many climates.
Building an Outdoor Enclosure
Building an outdoor enclosure for a tortoise is straightforward.
First, you need to select an area of outdoor space.
This area should receive partial shade to provide shelter from the sun. It should also be relatively flat.
Your enclosure should be as large as your space allows.
For small tortoises, 15-30 square feet of space is ideal. Larger species will require considerably more.
Enclosure walls should consist of sturdy, weatherproof material and be higher than your tortoise can climb.
Wood is a viable option, provided that it is weatherproof and rot-resistant. Bricks or concrete are also great options that will withstand the test of time.
Walls should also extend 12 inches or more below the ground to prevent your tortoise from burrowing underneath.
A roof or ceiling is optional, but can provide smaller tortoises with added protection from predatory animals.
A simple chicken wire or similar mesh serves this purpose well.
Turtle Tank Decoration Ideas
Terrestrial turtles don’t like a cluttered home.
As tortoises are pretty bulky, you don’t want to over-crowd their environment and make it difficult for them to move.
Make sure to provide some hiding places so that your turtle feels safe and doesn’t get stressed.
If you’re going for a chic turtle tank look, then cork bark provides an attractive option. Otherwise, even a small cardboard box will do if you’re on a budget.
You may also want to provide a basking platform and some aesthetic additions like faux rocks and plants (just make sure they’re non-toxic and suitable for reptiles).
Lastly, your tank MUST include a water dish that is also large enough for your turtle to soak in.
If you own a giant turtle, it might be more practical to use a cat litter tray or plant saucer.
Aquatic and Semi-Aquatic
The most essential “furniture” element of a semi-aquatic turtle tank is the basking platform.
There should be AT LEAST one basking area per semi-aquatic tank, though more is better.
This can be a commercial turtle platform explicitly built for semi-aquatic turtle species.
These items are also referred to as “turtle islands” or “turtle docks.” It’s up to you which style you choose.
A pile of flat stones makes a great alternative to a commercial platform for keepers on a budget.
Ensure that your DIY turtle island is sturdy enough to not collapse under the weight of your turtles!
If you’re planning on housing more than one turtle in an aquarium, ensure that there’s enough space for them all to bask at once.
If basking areas are limited, turtles may push each other into the water, causing stress in the process.
Still looking for more turtle tank decoration ideas?
Driftwood and aquatic plants can also be great additions to a turtle enclosure.
These can provide additional enrichment, as turtles will munch plants and climb driftwood if available.
Some keepers appreciate the natural aesthetic that driftwood and plants create, particularly alongside a substrate such as riverbed sand.
If you decide to use driftwood to spruce up your aquarium setup, ensure that you use a water-resistant variety such as Mopani (which you must cure first), bogwood, or Sumatran driftwood.
Also, note that your turtles will eat and otherwise ravage your plants.
Floating plants – such as water hyacinth and duckweed – can be more resistant to damage as your turtle cannot uproot them.
Turtle Tank Setup Ideas
In this section, we’ll showcase some awesome turtle tank setup ideas we found on the web for a few common species.
Remember, each species of turtle has slightly different needs. It’s vital to do your research before bringing an animal home!
Semi Aquatic Turtles (Red-Eared Slider, Painted Turtle, etc.)
Red-eared sliders and painted turtles require a fairly standard semi-aquatic turtle setup.
They’ll need an excellent canister-style aquarium filter, UV lighting, and a basking area.
They may also require an aquarium heater, depending on the room’s temperature in which they live.
A fun addition to a slider tank for the more DIY-savvy turtle enthusiast would be an above-tank baking area (ATBA).
ATBAs can be challenging to build, but don’t be afraid to step your tank game up to the next level! Check out this excellent setup thread on Reddit for ideas.
Tortoises (Including Russian, Red-Footed, and Hermanns)
Tortoises require a lot of space, especially when they are fully grown.
A good rule of thumb is to provide an enclosure no less than five times your tortoise’s width, ten times its length, and three times its height.
Most keepers opt to keep their tortoises outdoors for at least part of the year.
You can find inspiration for your tortoise setups on this Reddit thread.
For inspiration and detailed advice for housing Russian tortoises, check out our Russian tortoise care guide.
Also, check out our list of the best tortoise species for beginner keepers!
Baby Turtle Tank Ideas
A baby turtle should be kept in a tank of suitable size for an adult of its species.
Though it might seem to make sense to house turtle hatchlings in a small enclosure, we strongly recommend against this.
Turtles quickly outgrow small enclosures, making a small tank a poor investment.
What’s more, aquatic and semi-aquatic species feed and defecate in their water. That causes filters to be quickly overwhelmed and to need upgrading regularly.
There’s no downside to moving your baby turtles straight into their lifelong home. Most of the previous recommendations are great baby turtle tank ideas, too!
It’ll keep them feeling happy and secure and help you (the keeper) avoid unnecessary costs.
Show us your turtle setups in the comments below!