A Beginner’s Guide to Setting Up the Ideal Turtle Habitat

Set up Turtle Tank

If you’ve ever interacted with a freshwater turtle, you know that the turtle stereotypes you’ve heard are horribly incorrect. Turtles are upbeat, inquisitive, and bubbly creatures with humorous personalities and gentle spirits.

Thanks to their long life expectancies and relatively low maintenance requirements, turtles can be the perfect addition to any home. However, though they seem like an easy alternative to a dog or cat, they still require the right environment to thrive.

How to Set Up Your Turtle Habitat

Turtles are cold-blooded, semi-aquatic reptiles. It means that their home needs both dry land and underwater areas with controlled temperatures and lighting. While turtle habitats are relatively simple to set up, they need to be done correctly to ensure that your turtle can live its happiest, healthiest life.

Most pet shops offer bundled turtle setups that include a tank, lighting, filters, and additional tank items. While these bundles can be a great way to start, they are almost always made for hatchlings and, therefore, not big enough for full-size turtles. Additionally, they do not typically have all of the components you need for a well-rounded turtle habitat.

When you set up your turtle habitat, you will need to make sure you have several key habitat components:

Step 1: Choose Your Turtle Tank

You have a lot of options when it comes to choosing a container for your turtle habitat. Indoor and outdoor ponds, plastic bins, and aquariums can all make fantastic homes for a turtle. However, the cheapest and most popular option is the aquarium tank; therefore, that is what we are going to focus on in this section.

Turtles are semi-aquatic, so they will need an aquarium capable of holding water. When purchasing a tank, make sure you do not purchase a terrestrial tank, as they are known to leak or buckle when filled.

When choosing a tank for your turtle, it is important to consider both the size and shape of the tank.

Size of the Tank

Ideally, you want 10 gallons of water per inch of carapace (top shell) length. If you don’t plan on filling your tank all of the way, you need a larger tank to ensure your turtle still has enough swimming space. If you plan on having multiple turtles, you want an additional 5 gallons of water per inch of carapace length for each additional turtle.

Make sure you are considering the adult size of your turtle when choosing a tank size; if you get a small tank, you will need to upgrade it as your turtle grows.

However, if you get a large tank for hatchlings, do not fully fill the tank. Hatchlings’ lungs are not fully developed at birth, so they can drown in deep water.

Shape of the Tank

When considering the shape of your tank, you want to make sure that you are able to fill your tank deep enough that, if your turtle flips itself onto its back, it is able to right itself. As a general rule, it is best to have a water depth that is at least 1.5 times the width length of your turtle.

When choosing the shape of your tank, select a longer, shallower tank for poor swimmers, such as Musk, Mud, and Reeves turtles. If you have strong swimmers, such as Painted and Red-Eared Slider turtles, select a taller, narrower tank for more vertical swim space.

a red ear slider swimming in the tank

Step 2: Set Up a Basking Area

Once you have chosen your tank, you need to decide where your basking area will be located. Turtles need to spend time out of the water each day to bask and dry their shells. This behavior is essential for their overall wellbeing, as it promotes shell and bone growth, protects them against infection, and improves their mood (trust us- grumpy turtles are no fun).

As a rule of thumb, the diameter of your turtle’s basking area should be at least 1.5 times the length of your turtle. In general, you have three options for your aquarium basking area:

Suspended Dock

Turtle docks are attached via glue or suction cups to the side of your tank and float on the surface of the water. Turtle docks are the easiest basking area solution and are a great option for smaller, less active turtles. However, large or active turtles can submerge floating docks or remove suction cups from the wall fairly easily. Therefore, if you have a strong swimming species, this will likely not be a great long term option for you.

Rock or Log

A rock, log, or piece of driftwood can make a great basking area for turtles. If you choose to go this route, ensure that you pick something that does not have sharp edges and that your turtle can easily climb onto. Additionally, if you find something out in nature, make sure you boil it before you use it to kill any harmful algae, germs, or microorganisms.

Above-Tank Basking Area

The above-tank basking area is by far the best solution for your turtle; however, it typically requires some construction and upkeep on your part, as above-ground basking areas are not usually something you can buy from your local pet shot.

If you choose to create an above-tank basking area for your turtle, make sure that your turtle cannot fall off or out of the tank, and ensure that your turtle can always clearly see the ramp to the water. Turtles are known to get confused on land and forget how to get back to water if they cannot see it.

Whichever route you choose to take, make sure that your turtle has a clear, easy route to its basking area. If your turtle has a hard time getting to its basking area, consider purchasing a water-to-land ramp to assist it.

Step 3: Choose a Tank Cover

Turtle Tank Cover

A cover for your tank is important because it both protects things from falling into your tank and keeps your turtle from climbing out of the tank. While this doesn’t seem like it would be a big issue, several turtle species, such as Red Eared Sliders, are notorious climbers.

The most popular tank cover is a heat-proof metal link cover. Metal covers are inexpensive and easy to purchase at your local pet store. They also provide plenty of space for light to enter your tank, as discussed below.

Make sure that you don’t use a Plexiglas or plastic tank cover, as they filter out ultraviolet-B (UVB) light, which turtles need to survive. The heat lamps for a turtle basking area also get hot and have been known to melt plastic and Plexiglas tank covers.

Step 4: Consider an Underwater Heat Source

Turtles are cold-blooded, meaning they are unable to self-regulate their own body temperature. This means that as the temperature in your tank varies, so does the body temperature of your turtle.

Most turtles require a temperature range of 85-900 Fahrenheit on land and 72-800 F in water. This means that you will need a water heater to keep your water nice and warm throughout the day.

Make sure that whatever heater you get is both waterproof and shatterproof. Glass-covered heaters, which are fairly popular in the aquarium world, should not be used, as turtles can easily break the glass and hurt themselves.

If you have a heater in your tank, you should always have a thermometer in the water as well. Make sure your shatterproof thermometer is in a location that is easy for you to read so that you can monitor the temperature in your aquarium daily.

There are three types of heaters to choose from for your turtle tank:

Submersible Heaters

These will likely be the cheapest and most efficient option. Submersible heaters are long and cylindrical and sit vertically against the wall of your tank. When placed in a location with good water circulation, they typically maintain a relatively stable temperature throughout the tank.

Under-Substrate Heaters

These remain popular because they are hidden under the substrate and therefore don’t ruin the aesthetic of the tank. However, because of their location, they are not as effective and much harder to maintain.

That being said, if you have an especially inquisitive turtle that enjoys breaking apart heaters, under-substrate heaters are a great option for both your turtle’s safety and your budgeting.

External In-Line Heater

These sit outside of your aquarium. Water is pumped through the heater and then returned to the tank. If you have an external filtration system, the external in-line heater can easily work in tandem with the filter, minimizing the number of tubes leaving your tank. While these are arguably the most stable and efficient heaters, they are also the most expensive.

Step 5: Set Up Light Sources with Visible, UVA, and UVB Light

Light for Turtle Tank

Proper lighting is one of the most important components of any turtle habitat. Like us, turtles have circadian rhythms. Without consistent lighting that mirrors a 24-hour sun cycle, your turtle can become irritable, stressed, and sick.

Your turtle requires three types of lights within its habitat:

  • Visible Light (Artificial Daylight): The warmth of a visible light helps your turtle fight illnesses and infections, and is important for their mood, feeding, breeding, and body temperature regulation.
  • Ultraviolet A (UVA) Light: Like the visible light, UVA is important for your turtle’s mood, feeding, and breeding.
  • Ultraviolet B (UVB) Light: UVB is required for your turtle’s production of Vitamin D3, which is needed for proper bone and shell growth. A lack of UVB lighting can lead to metabolic bone disease.

When choosing the lights for your habitat, it is typically best to get one compact basking light (for warmth) and one UVB tube or compact light. When hot lights are splashed, especially incandescent, halogen, and mercury vapor lightbulbs, they have the potential to shatter. Therefore, make sure the lightbulbs you choose are waterproof and that you have a screen that will stop potential broken glass from falling into your tank.

When choosing a lightbulb, make sure it specifies the presence of UVA and UVB light; many full-spectrum lights do not include UVB. For freshwater turtles, it is best to use UVB lightbulbs with 2-5% UVB (UVB lightbulbs for tropical or swamp environments). UVB lightbulbs for dessert creatures have 10% UVB and are typically too intense for turtles.

When setting up your lighting, you want to provide your turtle with a heat spectrum within the tank. The basking light should be set up so that the temperature in the basking area is 85-900 F. The UVB light should be 12-18″ above the basking area.

As stated above, make sure you do not have a Plexiglas or plastic barrier between your UVB light and the tank, as they will prevent the UVB rays from reaching your turtle.

Step 6: Invest in a Strong Water Filtration System

Strong Water Filtration System for Turtle Tank

Turtles are messy eaters, and they take care of their business in the water; as such, their bioload is high. Unless you want to be performing daily water changes, you’re going to need a strong filtration system to keep up with your turtle.

When choosing a filter for your tank, it is important to remember that filter recommendations are made with fish in mind. As such, it is best to choose a filter that is made for a tank 2-3 larger than yours to account for your turtle’s elevated bioload.

There are three main filter options for your turtle tank.

Canister Filter

Canister filters are external units that can be placed conveniently behind the tank and out of sight. They are the most expensive filter option and typically the most time consuming to maintain. However, they also tend to be the best option for turtle tanks, as they have the filtration power to keep up with a turtle’s bioload.

When choosing the canister filter for your tank, it is best to get one that cycles the aquarium’s water 5-10 times per hour.

Hang-on-Tank Filter

Hanging filters are the most common filters used in fish aquariums. While they have the power to manage a turtle bioload, they require the tank to be full of water, meaning that you would need an above-tank basking area for your turtle.

If you choose to go with a hanging filter, it is possible to purchase one with a large input tube that extends down into your tank, allowing you to drop the water levels in your tank several inches. With this elongated filter, it is possible to provide your turtle with an in-tank basking area as long as you closely monitor water levels.

Internal, Submersible Filter

Submersible filters sit on the bottom of the tank, and are great if you want a clean tank aesthetic. While they work well in starter tanks with small turtles, they cannot keep up with the bioload of a full-grown turtle. Therefore, if you go with a submersible filter, be prepared for many water changes or a filter upgrade as your turtle grows.

Step 7: Fill the Tank with Water

Turtles are relatively hardy and are far less picky than fish or corals when it comes to water quality. However, they still have basic water requirements. When preparing the water for your turtle habitat, make sure you use filtered water or drinking water.

Though drinking water is safe for humans, there are still some chemicals in the water that can be harmful to your turtle. Therefore, you must use a water conditioner to remove chlorine, chloramines, or heavy metals from the water.

When adding water to your tank, make sure that it is properly conditioned and that the temperature has stabilized prior to introducing your turtle.

Additional Habitat Considerations

While substrates and decorations are not necessary for the survival of your turtle, they can make the habitat more welcoming for your turtle and more beautiful for you.

Some of the habitat components we recommend adding include:

Choose the Correct Substrate

Correct Substrate for Turtle Tank

The substrate, or bottom layer of your tank, is only required for living plants or for turtles that like to dig, such as Softshell turtles. However, adding a substrate to your tank can both elevate the aesthetic of your tank and provide your turtle with stimulation.

The three main substrates to consider for your turtle include:

  • Sand: Sand is a suitable substrate for turtles but difficult to clean. Therefore, be prepared for vacuuming and water changes if you choose to use sand.
  • Gravel: Gravel is an excellent substrate choice if you want to create a natural habitat. When choosing a type of gravel for your tank, make sure that you choose rocks that are smooth and at least 1-inch in diameter to keep your turtle from ingesting them.
  • Fluorite: Fluorite is crystalized cubes of calcium fluoride and is therefore beneficial for the health of live plants. If you use fluorite or mix fluorite with your gravel, make sure that the cubes are at least 1-inch in diameter to keep your turtle from ingesting them.

If you choose to add substrate to your tank, make sure you also purchase the tools you will need to clean it. Substrates will need to be siphoned regularly to remove any food or waste that accumulates.

Consider Installing an Air Pump

Underwater air pumps aerate the water and help to discourage the growth of anaerobic bacteria. While not necessary for turtle habitats, they can help decrease the amount of maintenance required. Most importantly, most turtles love bubbles and enjoy the fun toy you’ve provided.

Elevate Your Tank with Plants and Decorations

Plants and Decorations for Turtle Tank

Plants or decorations are a great way to make your tank more interesting to look at and more fun for your turtle. When choosing decorations for your tank, make sure you are choosing items that do not have sharp edges that can harm your turtle.

Remember that every decoration, plant, or rock you add to the tank takes away critical living area for your turtle. Therefore, make sure you don’t overcrowd the habitat.

Most turtles are relatively shy creatures and thrive best in environments where they have quiet places to sleep and hide. Consider choosing plants and decorations that give your turtle some hiding places, especially if your tank is in an area with lots of activity.

How to Maintain Your Turtle Habitat

Once your turtle habitat is up and running, you will need to perform regular maintenance to ensure that the conditions remain healthy for your turtle. Depending on your tank and filter size, the water in your tank will need to be changed 2-4 times per month.

When cleaning your turtle habitat, ensure you follow these steps:

  1. Unplug all electrical devices, including lights, heaters, and filters.
  2. Remove your turtle and put it in a safe place while you clean the tank. Don’t leave your turtle unsupervised outside or with other animals.
  3. Use a siphon to remove water and debris from the tank. If you have a yard, the water from your tank makes a great fertilizer and water source.
  4. Clean out filters per the manufacturer’s instructions and replace filter packs, as necessary. Do not clean tank components in areas where food is stored, prepped, or eaten, as turtles can harbor harmful germs and bacteria.
  5. Clean any areas of algal build-up on the tank and decorations.
  6. Once cleaning is complete, add filtered or drinking water to your aquarium, as well as water conditioners.
  7. Plug in heaters, filters, and lights. Make sure all tank components are working correctly.
  8. Once the water temperature in the tank has stabilized and the water conditioners have been cycled, your turtle can be reintroduced.

Final Thoughts

Turtles are fantastic pets that deserve fantastic homes. By putting in the time and effort to make a proper habitat for your turtle, you will be saving yourself time and effort down the road and ensuring that your turtle has the happiest, healthiest life possible.

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