How To Set Up A Turtle Tank - The Beginner's Guide in Steps

How To Set Up A Turtle Tank – The Beginner’s Guide in Steps

Turtles make wonderful pets and can provide years of enjoyment and companionship. However, before bringing a turtle into your home, it’s important to ensure that you have a proper setup for its habitat. A turtle tank is a critical component of a turtle’s home, providing the necessary space, shelter, and environment for it to thrive. 

In this article, we will guide you through how to set up a turtle tank, covering everything from choosing the right tank size to selecting the right equipment and accessories. 

Whether you’re a first-time turtle owner or simply looking to upgrade your current setup, this guide will help you create a safe and comfortable environment for your pet turtle.

How To Set Up A Turtle Tank: Step By Step

Turtle Tank Selection

Setting up a turtle tank can be done in the following steps:

1) Tank Selection

Choosing the right tank for your turtle is critical to providing a healthy and comfortable environment for your pet. When selecting a tank, it is vital to research the specific needs of your turtle species to ensure that you provide the best possible home for your pet.

Choose The Right Size 

Choosing the right tank size for your turtle is crucial for its health and well-being. It’s important to remember that even tiny turtles need plenty of space to move around and explore. Housing a turtle in a cramped and small enclosure can lead to stress and illness.

The tank size should be large enough to provide enough space for your turtle to swim, bask and hide. 

Every turtle species is different when determining the ideal tank size, but some general guidelines can be followed. 

A rule of thumb is 10 gallons of water per 1 inch of the turtle’s shell length.

  • For small turtles that measure 4-6 inches in length, a tank of 30 gallons or more is recommended. 
  • Medium-sized turtles that measure 6-8 inches in size require a tank of 50 gallons or more.
  • Large turtles measuring 8 inches or more need a tank of 75 gallons or more.

It’s always better to choose a larger tank than necessary to provide your turtle with plenty of space to roam and explore. As your turtle grows, it may be required to upgrade its tank to a larger size. Starting your turtle off in its adult-sized tank from the beginning is often easier for both you and your pet.

Turtles are generally solitary animals, but if you have more than one, it’s important to provide enough space for each of them to prevent territorial behavior and injury. Depending on the species, you should have at least 20 extra gallons for each additional turtle.

The Tank Should Be Safe

Safety should be a top priority when setting up a tank for your pet turtle. Glass reptile aquariums can easily crack under pressure, which can seriously threaten your turtle’s safety. 

Therefore, it’s recommended to opt for a sturdy glass aquarium that is intended for turtles, as these are specifically designed to hold water and are less likely to crack.

Reusing an old tank can be a cost-effective option, but it’s important to thoroughly inspect it before setting it up for your turtle. Filling the tank with water is a simple and effective way to check for cracks or leaks. If any issues are found, it’s best to replace the tank rather than risk your pet’s safety.

2) Tank Layout Design

Designing the layout of your turtle tank is an essential step in creating a comfortable and functional living environment for your pet. The design should include areas for swimming, basking, hiding, and exploring, as well as areas for food and water.

By carefully designing your turtle tank’s layout, you can create a comfortable and functional environment that meets your pet’s needs.

Swimming Space

In terms of swimming, providing enough space for your turtle to swim and exercise is vital. 

It is recommended that at least 50% of your turtle’s tank be dedicated to swimming space. The majority of the day for aquatic and semiaquatic turtles is spent submerged. They need a large swimming area to maintain their health and fitness.

The water depth should be appropriate for the size and species of your turtle, and a ramp or sloped area should be provided for easy access in and out of the water.

Terrestrial Space

Terrestrial space in turtle tanks is a critical aspect of setting up a suitable living environment for primarily land-dwelling or semi-aquatic turtles. 

Substrates like newspaper, paper towels, artificial turtle grass, or paper-based pelleted bedding can be placed on top of the glass tank to simulate the earthly environment that turtles require. With this, the turtle will have a place to walk and go about its daily routine.

A semi-aquatic turtle’s habitat should include around half of the terrestrial space for a suitable balance of land and water. Ramps, logs, rocks, or platforms that are either big enough to stand above the water or float on the water can be used to make basking areas for semi-aquatic turtles.

It’s crucial to remember that aquatic turtles only require about 25% of their enclosure on land as they spend most of their time in the water. Thus, neither a basking place nor a shallow water dish is necessary.

A Basking Area 

Add a basking area to one side of the tank, where the turtle can climb out of the water. So a platform should be provided, allowing your turtle to warm up and dry off. 

Turtles need a basking area temperature between 85-90°F (29.4-32.2°C) to properly absorb the vitamin D3 they need to maintain healthy shells and bones. To create a suitable basking area, you should recreate a space in the turtle’s enclosure where they can bask and warm up.

Turtle Tank Selection

Maintaining a temperature gradient throughout the tank is essential, with the basking area being the hottest spot and the water being the coolest. This allows the turtle to adjust its body temperature as needed, warming up or cooling down as required. 

The basking area should be equipped with a heat source, such as a heat lamp or ceramic heater, to maintain the temperature required for your turtle’s species.

When choosing a heat lamp for a turtle tank, it’s crucial to select one specifically designed for reptile use. A high-intensity heat lamp, such as a basking bulb, is a good option. These lamps produce heat and light, which can help create a natural basking environment for the turtle.

Incandescent, halogen, and mercury vapor lamps all have a high risk of burning your turtle due to their high temperatures. Therefore, it is not advised to use these.

Choosing a heat lamp with the correct wattage for your turtle tank is also important. A heat lamp with too low of a wattage will not provide enough heat, while one with too high of a wattage can overheat the basking area and create a dangerous environment for your turtle. (Heat lamps between 50 and 75 watts work well for turtles kept in smaller enclosures. 100 watts may be required for larger chambers.)

In later parts, we’ll discuss more lighting selections.

Your turtle needs at least 12 inches (30 cm) of safe distance from heat lamps when basking.

Finally, it’s recommended to place a thermometer near the basking area to monitor the temperature and ensure it stays within the ideal range. This will allow you to make any necessary adjustments to the heat lamp and maintain a safe and suitable basking environment for your turtle.

Tank Cover

Turtle tanks do need a cover for several reasons. A tank cover provides a secure lid that prevents the turtle from escaping, keeps debris from falling into the tank, and provides insulation to help regulate the temperature and humidity levels in the tank.

A properly fitting tank cover also helps prevent water evaporation, which is vital to maintain a consistent water level. It can also reduce the risk of injury to your turtle if it tries to climb out of the tank and prevent other household pets from accessing it and potentially harming it.

In addition to providing a physical barrier, some tank covers also include built-in lighting and heating fixtures, which are essential for the health and well-being of your turtle. UVB lighting, in particular, is critical for your turtle’s shell health, as it helps to produce vitamin D3, which is necessary for proper calcium metabolism.

Not all tank covers are suitable for all turtle species, so it’s essential to do your research and choose a lid appropriate for your pet’s size, species, and behavior.

Plants And Hiding Places 

Add live or artificial plants, caves, or other hiding places to provide the turtle with a sense of security and places to hide.

Hiding places, such as caves, rocks, or plants, provide your turtle with comfort. It’s also important to include areas for exploring, such as rocks, plants, or other decorations, to provide stimulation and enrichment for your turtle.

Finally, a shallow dish or bowl should be provided for food, and a separate area should be designated for water changes. 

Other Decors

  • Driftwood can provide a natural-looking environment and hiding spots for your turtle.
  • A background, such as a poster or painted wall, can make the turtle tank look more natural and provide a sense of depth.

3) Substrate Selection

The ideal substrate for turtle tanks is one that provides a comfortable and safe environment for your turtle. A suitable substrate should allow for proper drainage, be easy to clean and maintain, and not contain any harmful chemicals. 

Choosing the right substrate and regularly cleaning and replacing it can help ensure your turtle thrives in its environment.

For turtle tanks, sand is safe but harder to clean, while gravel should be larger than 0.5 inches to avoid ingestion and potential choking or impaction. 

Turtle Tank Substrate

Flourite, a substrate for plant growth, can be used alone or mixed with gravel. Coral is only suitable for brackish and saltwater turtles and raises the pH of the water.

It’s crucial to avoid substrates that could be ingested by the turtle, as they can cause digestive problems.

It’s also important to regularly clean and replace the substrate, as a dirty substrate can become a source of bacteria and parasites that could harm the turtle.

4) Putting The Tank In An Appropriate Location

Selecting the right location for your turtle tank is crucial for ensuring the well-being and health of your pet. Here are some key factors to consider when choosing a location:

  1. Light: Turtles need natural and artificial light access to maintain their health. Ensure the location you choose has access to natural light during the day and can be illuminated with a full-spectrum light source at night.
  2. Temperature: Turtles require a specific temperature range to maintain their health, so choosing a location that can be easily heated and cooled as needed is important. Avoid placing the tank near windows, as direct sunlight can overheat the water and cause stress to your turtle.
  3. Space: Turtles need space to swim and bask, so choose a location that can accommodate the size of your tank and allow for adequate swimming and basking areas.
  4. Accessibility: Your location should be easily accessible for cleaning and maintenance. Consider the tank’s weight when selecting a place, and ensure it’s situated in a spot that allows easy access to the electrical outlets needed for heating and lighting.
  5. Safety: Turtles are curious creatures and may attempt to escape, so make sure the location you choose is secure and free from potential dangers, such as other pets or children.

Considering these factors, you can choose the right location for your turtle tank and ensure a comfortable and healthy environment for your pet.

5) Fill The Tank With Water

Filling a turtle tank with water is an essential step in creating a healthy and comfortable environment for your pet. Here are some key steps to follow when filling your turtle tank:

  1. Clean the tank: Before adding water, thoroughly clean the tank to remove any dust, debris, or bacteria that may harm your turtle.
  2. Determine water level: The water level in the tank should be deep enough for your turtle to swim comfortably, typically around 12-15 inches for adult turtles.
  3. Dechlorinate the water: Chlorine and other chemicals in tap water can be harmful to turtles, so it’s vital to dechlorinate the water before adding it to the tank. You can use a dechlorinating product specifically designed for aquariums or let the tap water sit out for 24 hours to allow the chemicals to dissipate.
  4. Fill the tank: Slowly fill the tank with dechlorinated water, not creating too much turbulence that could destroy the tank outline, including the substrate.

By following these steps, you can ensure that your turtle tank is filled with clean, safe, and comfortable water for your pet.

6) Arrange Accessories For The Tank

Setting up the right turtle tank accessories is essential to provide your turtles with a safe, cozy home. Many accessories are necessary for keeping a healthy tank and offering your turtles the best living conditions, including filters, heaters, and lighting. Making sure your turtles are healthy and happy requires knowing which accessories to use and how to set them up correctly.

Turtle Tank Accessories

A Filtration System 

A turtle tank filter is a crucial component of a turtle’s habitat, helping to maintain water quality and clarity. Filters help to remove waste products and toxic substances from the water, ensuring that your turtle has a safe and healthy environment. 

Several turtle tank filters are available, including mechanical, biological, and chemical filters. Each type of filter serves a different purpose, so it’s important to choose the right filter based on the size of your tank and the specific needs of your turtle. 

Mechanical filtration refers to the physical removal of waste products, debris, and impurities from the water. This is achieved through the use of mechanical filters such as sponge filters or foam filters. The water is drawn through the filter material, which captures and removes solid waste particles, keeping the water in the tank clear and free from debris.

Biological filtration involves using beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms to break down waste products and toxic substances in the water. This is accomplished through biological filters such as bio-sponges or bio-balls. The filter material provides a surface area for the growth of these beneficial bacteria, which break down waste products such as ammonia and nitrite, keeping the water clean and healthy for your turtle.

Chemical filtration uses chemical substances to remove impurities and unwanted substances from the water. This is achieved through the use of chemical filters such as activated carbon filters or resin filters. Chemical filters work by adsorbing impurities and unwanted substances onto the filter material, removing them from the water, and keeping it clean.

Additionally, it’s important to perform regular maintenance on your turtle tank filter, such as cleaning or replacing filter cartridges, to ensure that it continues to operate effectively. 

Canister Filter

A canister filter is a type of filter that is commonly used in turtle tank setups. It is a highly effective and efficient filtration system that can help to maintain water quality and clarity in your turtle’s habitat. 

Canister filters are typically larger and more powerful than other types of filters, making them ideal for use in larger turtle tanks. They work by drawing water from the tank into the canister, where it passes through a series of mechanical, biological, and chemical filtration media. 

This helps to remove waste products, toxic substances, and impurities from the water, keeping it clean and healthy for your turtle. 

Canister filters are also relatively easy to maintain, with regular cleaning and cartridge replacement recommended to ensure that they continue to operate effectively. 

Hang-On-Back (HOB) Filter

It is a compact and affordable filtration option suitable for use in smaller to medium-sized turtle tanks. HOB filters are easy to install and typically hang on the back of the tank, hence the name. 

They work by drawing water from the tank through a sponge or other filtration media, which helps to remove waste products, toxic substances, and impurities from the water. The filtered water is then returned to the tank, keeping it clean and healthy for your turtle. 

HOB filters are low-maintenance and typically require only occasional cleaning or cartridge replacement to keep them functioning effectively. 

Internal Filter

It is a compact and discreet filtration option for smaller turtle tanks. Internal filters are installed inside the tank and typically have a low profile, making them less noticeable than other types of filters. 

They work by drawing water from the tank through a sponge or other filtration media, which helps to remove waste products, toxic substances, and impurities from the water. The filtered water is then returned to the tank, keeping it clean and healthy for your turtle. 

Heating System

Turtle tank heaters are essential to maintaining your turtle’s health and well-being. Turtles are cold-blooded animals and require a regulated and consistent temperature in their environment to function healthily. A turtle tank heater helps maintain the tank’s temperature, ensuring that it remains warm and comfortable for your turtle.

The ideal water temperature for your turtle is condition- and age-specific. However, most turtles do best in temperatures between 74 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit (23.3 and 27.8 degrees Celsius).

Tank Size (Gallons)
Watts Needed To Heat The Tank

Submersible Heater

Submersible heaters are a type of turtle tank heater designed to be fully immersed in water. They are small and compact, making them suitable for smaller turtle tanks. Submersible heaters heat the water directly, which helps maintain a consistent and regulated temperature in the tank.

One of the benefits of using a submersible heater is that they are easy to install and use. Simply place the heater in the water and plug it in, and it will begin to heat the water. 

When using a submersible heater in a turtle tank, selecting one appropriate for your tank’s size and the turtle’s specific needs is crucial. 

Keep the heater at least an inch (2.54 cm) below the water level to prevent water loss due to evaporation. Never use a submersible heater exposed to air while on, as this could cause the heater to overheat and break down.

External Heater

External heaters are a type of turtle tank heater that is mounted outside of the tank. Unlike submersible heaters, designed to be fully immersed in the water, external heaters heat the water indirectly. They are generally more robust and appropriate for larger turtle tanks.

External heaters are easy to install and use. Simply mount the heater outside the tank and connect it to the water pump or filter system, and it will begin to heat the water. Additionally, external heaters are often equipped with temperature control systems that help to ensure that the water temperature remains within the appropriate range.

It’s also essential to position the heater in the tank to promote even heat distribution and to regularly monitor the water temperature to ensure it remains within the appropriate range. Regular maintenance of the heater, such as checking the temperature control system and cleaning it as needed, will help ensure that it continues to function effectively.

Lighting System

Lighting is a crucial aspect of turtle tank setup, as it significantly impacts your turtle’s overall health and well-being. Lighting serves several important functions in a turtle tank, including:

  1. Providing heat and warmth: Turtles require a warm environment to regulate their body temperature and support their metabolism. Lighting can provide heat and warmth, especially if positioned over a tank basking area.
  2. Supporting vitamin D3 production: Turtles require UVB (Ultraviolet B) lighting to produce vitamin D3, which is essential for properly absorbing calcium and maintaining strong, healthy bones.
  3. Maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm: Turtles have a natural circadian rhythm tied to light and dark cycles. Appropriately lighting can help regulate this rhythm and ensure that your turtle sleeps and wakes at the right times.
  4. Improving visibility: Viewing lights are not necessary for your turtle’s health, but they make it easier for you to view your turtle and monitor its activities.

(Ultraviolet B) Lighting

UVB (Ultraviolet B) lighting is an important aspect of turtle tank lighting. Turtles require UVB lighting to help them produce vitamin D3, essential for adequately absorbing calcium and maintaining strong, healthy bones. 

Without adequate UVB lighting, turtles can develop health problems such as shell deformities, metabolic bone disease, etc.

Several types of UVB lighting are available for turtle tanks, including fluorescent UVB bulbs, compact UVB bulbs, and mercury vapor UVB bulbs. When selecting a UVB light for your turtle tank, it’s important to choose one specifically designed for reptiles with the appropriate strength and spectrum for your turtle’s needs.

In general, it’s recommended to position the UVB light over the basking area of your turtle tank so that your turtle has access to the light for several hours each day. It’s also important to regularly check the UVB light and replace it when necessary, as UVB lights lose their strength over time.

Most turtles thrive under UVB bulbs with a percentage of 2.5, 3, or 5%; higher percentage bulbs aren’t safe for turtles.

The glass will not allow UVB rays into the enclosure, so a mesh cover is necessary to keep the turtle safe.

Because of their diurnal lifestyle, turtles require a consistent day-night cycle. Ensure your turtle has access to 10-12 hours of light daily.

By providing your turtle with adequate UVB lighting, you can help to support its overall health and well-being and ensure that it has the proper nutrients and vitamins needed to thrive.

Viewing Lights

Although viewing lights are not a requirement for your turtle’s health, they provide a convenient way for you to observe your turtle. When choosing a viewing light, there are options for both day and night viewing. LED lights are a great choice as they offer a clear and bright view while being energy-efficient.

For nighttime viewing, it is best to opt for a red or blue light as they are not too bright to disturb your turtle’s sleep but are still bright enough for you to see your turtle. This way, you can monitor your turtle’s activities and ensure that it is healthy and comfortable without disrupting its sleep pattern.

Turtle Ledge

A turtle ledge is a platform or shelf placed inside a turtle tank. The purpose of a turtle ledge is to provide a basking area for the turtle where it can rest, warm up, and absorb heat and UVB light. A turtle ledge is typically positioned near the top of the tank, near a heat lamp or UVB light, to allow the turtle to easily access the heat and light it needs.

Turtle ledges come in various sizes and shapes and can be made from multiple materials, including plastic, wood, and rocks. Some turtle ledges also include features like ramps or ladders to make it easier for the turtle to access the basking area, as well as hiding spots or caves to provide the turtle with a sense of security and a place to retreat.

Turtle Ramps

Turtle ramps are a type of accessory that can be added to a turtle tank to provide a ramp or staircase for the turtle to climb from the water to the basking area. 

 Turtle ramps provide a convenient and safe way for the turtle to get in and out of the water without having to struggle or risk injury.

Some ramps have non-slip surfaces to prevent the turtle from slipping and falling, while others have a gently sloping surface that is easy for the turtle to climb. 

7) Monitor The Temperature And Water Quality 

Maintaining a turtle tank’s temperature and water quality is crucial for keeping your pet’s habitat cozy and safe. Here are some vital actions to do to keep an eye on these critical variables:

  1. Check water temperature: Turtles require a specific water temperature range depending on their species, so it’s essential to regularly check the temperature using a thermometer. You should aim to maintain the water temperature between 75-82°F (24-28°C).
  2. Monitor pH levels: The pH level of the water in the turtle tank should also be monitored regularly. The ideal pH level for most turtle species is between 7.0-8.0. If the pH level deviates from this range, it can cause health problems for your turtle.
  3. Test water quality regularly: Regular water testing is critical to maintaining a healthy and safe environment for your turtle. You should test the water quality weekly, or more often if necessary, to ensure that the water is free of harmful bacteria and pollutants.
  4. Change the water regularly: Regular water changes help to maintain water quality by removing any built-up waste or contaminants. Aim to change about 20-30% of the water in the tank once a week or as needed.

By regularly monitoring your turtle tank’s temperature and water quality, you can ensure that your pet has a safe and healthy environment to live in.


By providing a suitable environment, you can help your turtle to thrive in captivity.

It’s essential to research your turtle species’ specific needs and consult with a veterinarian to ensure that you are providing the best possible environment for your turtle. 

With proper care and attention, your turtle tank can provide a healthy and stimulating home for your turtle.

Turtle Tank Set Up Tips

Additional Tips

Can Turtles Survive In A Water-filled Tank?

Most turtles are semi-aquatic animals and need both water and a dry environment to regulate their body temperature and support their overall health.

Some species of totally aquatic turtles, such as the red-eared slider, can be kept as pets and are unaffected by a full tank of water. But still, water alone shouldn’t be in their tank.

In the wild, turtles swim in the water, bask on rocks or logs, and hide in vegetation. To mimic this natural environment in captivity, a turtle tank should have both a water area and a basking area. 

The water should be deep enough for the turtle to swim comfortably, and the basking area should be warm and dry.

Are Turtle Tanks Odorous?

Turtle tanks can develop an unpleasant odor if they are not properly maintained. Poor water quality, overfeeding, and a lack of filtration can all contribute to an unhealthy and smelly environment. Additionally, turtle tanks are prone to the buildup of waste and uneaten food, which can contribute to the development of a foul odor.

To minimize odors in a turtle tank, it’s essential to maintain good water quality by regularly changing the water, cleaning the substrate, and using a filtration system. Overfeeding should also be avoided, and any uneaten food or waste should be removed promptly.

By following proper turtle tank maintenance procedures and ensuring that the environment is healthy and clean, you can minimize odors and create a comfortable and healthy environment for your turtle. If you notice an unpleasant smell in your turtle tank, it’s a sign that you should take action to address the issue.

Do Turtle Tanks Need To Be Cycled?

Yes, turtle tanks must be cycled before they can safely house turtles. Cycling refers to establishing a beneficial bacteria colony in the tank that helps break down harmful ammonia and nitrite produced by the turtles and their waste. This bacteria colony helps to maintain a stable and healthy water environment for the turtles.

Without cycling, harmful ammonia and nitrite levels can quickly rise to toxic levels, leading to poor water quality and a stressed or sick turtle. The cycling process typically takes 4-6 weeks, during which regular water tests should be performed to monitor the levels of ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate.

Once the tank has been successfully cycled, it is crucial to maintain good water quality through regular water changes, filtering, and proper feeding and waste management practices. By cycling the turtle tank and maintaining good water quality, you can ensure a healthy environment for your turtles.

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