Turtle tank setup

A Detailed Guide to Indoor Turtle Tank Setup For Absolute Beginners

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Turtles are one of the easiest pets to care for. Taking care of turtles can be very peaceful and rewarding. They don’t ask much from you. However, you do need to provide them the best habitat you can afford. Turtle tank setup isn’t a very easy task. There are multiple factors involved with it and you do need to spend some money. So, only get a pet turtle if you are ready to take the responsibility of it. Along with responsibility, you also do need to have a decent amount of money to set up the turtle habitat.

In this article, I am going to talk about turtle tank setup in details. I promise, after reading this article, you’ll know everything about turtle tank setup. I am going to explain everything in elaborately. So, if you want to skip any step, you can use the content table on the top of this post.

I am mainly going to talk about how to set up an aquatic turtle habitat in this article. So, if you have a semi-aquatic turtle then this habitat setup is not for your turtle.

Let’s get started with how to setup your turtle tank.

What Turtles Need in Their Tank?

Turtles need multiple items in their tank. You can place as many things as you want in a turtle tank, but some are a must. Your turtle tank won’t be complete without these items. Here are the must-having items in a turtle tank:

  • The first thing your turtle tank needs is a large sturdy tank. You need a tank that has the appropriate size for your turtle. it also needs to be sturdy.
  • The next important thing is lighting. You need to have a lamp with UVB lights. You don’t need anything extra for UVA as a UVB bulb will provide both. However, you do need to have a heat lamp to provide enough heat to the basking place.
  • Talking about basking place, the next thing you need to have is a decent, large basking place. I can’t believe how many people out there don’t even know that aquatic turtles need to bask. Basking place is a MUST for aquatic turtle setup. I am going to talk about it in details later in the post.
  • The next thing you can have is a decent water heater. If you live in a place which is considerably warm all over the year, then you may not need it immediately. However, places where there is a large temperature swing, you need to have a decent water heater for your turtle tank. Along with water heater, also get a good thermometer to monitor the temperature of your turtle tank.
  • Having a powerful filtration system is extremely important for a successful turtle tank setup. Turtles are very messy animals in general. They quickly make the water dirty. Without a powerful filtration system, it will be impossible to keep up the water quality constant over a period of time. I always recommend buying a decent canister filter for a turtle tank. However, you can also get a top filter, hang on back filters etc.
  • Though it is not a must, having a screen cover on the top of the turtle tank will protect the turtle from potential harms such as predators or broken lamps.
  • The substrate is not a must for a turtle tank. In fact, it may make cleaning a turtle tank harder. So, get substrate only if you need it.
  • Another thing you may need is a ramp. A ramp is something which connects the basking place to the water area. It helps the turtle to get on the basking place.
  • This is the last item: decorations. Honestly, I don’t care much about decorations. They are not necessary. In some cases, it is even better not to crowd your tank with decorations as it limits out the swimming area of the turtle. however, if you want you may place some turtle safe decorative items inside the tank.

So, this is the quick list of what things you need to have in a turtle tank. Now, I’ll talk about each of the items in details.

Choosing a Spacious, Sturdy Tank:

large turtle tank

The first thing your turtle needs is a decent size good quality tank. The most common enclosure for keeping a turtle in indoor is glass aquarium. You can also use a plastic tub for keeping a turtle.  if you have the money and some extra space, you can even create an indoor turtle pond, which is really amazing.

As using fish tank is the most common option for a turtle habitat, we are going to talk about it in details. The first thing you need to know is, turtles need considerable large size tanks. The one mistake I find people do most is getting a tank which is very small for the turtle. No matter what else you do, if the tank is not right, the whole habitat is ruined.  Here are some important things to look out for when getting a turtle tank:

  • A general rule of thumb is, for every 1-inch size turtle, you need about 15 to 20 gallons of water. If you have a baby turtle, do not measure the tank based on its current size. Take into account the average size of an adult turtle of that species and get a glass tank based on that.
  • Never use a reptile tank for a turtle tank. Reptile tanks tend to be much thinner and they may not hold the pressure of water. A turtle tank must have a minimum thickness of 10mm.
  • For more than one turtle, measure the tank size for one turtle and add half of that for each additional turtle. it should give you a pretty good idea of how large the tank should be.
  • The tank needs to have more depth than its width. Otherwise, if your turtle gets upside-down, it won’t be able to turn itself right over for lack of water. So, if your turtle is 3 inches, then at least have a water depth of 3 inches.
  • Always get a tank whose length is at least three times the length of the turtle and the width is at least twice the length of the turtle. the height should be 1.5 to 2 times the length of the turtle. Ensure that there is enough gap between the highest point of the tank and the point where your turtle can reach to prevent any unsupervised escape.

Why Are Small Tanks Bad?

  • Small tanks are much harder to maintain than a larger tank. The water gets dirty very quickly. It is also hard to clean a small tank.
  • Your turtle won’t enjoy the habitat as there will be not enough space for swimming.
  • The turtle may not grow properly due to lack of space.
  • Turtles tend to fight in a small tank due to their territorial instinct.

What Shape Tank Is Better?

The shape of the tank is also very important for setting up a turtle habitat. It generally depends on the type of turtle you have. Strong swimmer turtle such as red-eared sliders and painted turtles prefer vertical swimming. On the other hand, poor swimmers such as Reeves turtles, musk turtles, and mud turtles feel safer in a shallow tank. So, choose the shape of the tank depending on the species of turtle you want to keep.

Where Can I Buy a Turtle Tank?

There are many places where you can buy a turtle tank. You can check out the local pet stores for a turtle tank. Keep in mind that, you need to at least go for a 40-50 gallon tank for keeping even a baby turtle. As the turtle grows up, you’ll have to upgrade to a larger tank eventually.

If you want the tank to be shipped to your address directly, you can try Amazon. I like this method personally as I don’t want to go through the hassle of shifting the tank from the pet store to my home. I also believe Amazon has reliable turtle tanks with great quality. There are many sizes of tank available on Amazon such as 120-gallon tank, 70-gallon tank, 55-gallon tank, 50-gallon tank etc. Choose one that suits your budget. However, keep in mind that the larger you can get, the better.

120 Gallon Tank:

If you have space and money, a 120-gallon tank will be perfect for any aquatic turtle habitat. You don’t have to worry about limited space at all. Moreover, the turtle will live happily for its whole life. Amazon has an excellent offer for a 120-gallon water tank. It is made from distortion-free glass with a polished diamond edge. The dimension is 60” x 18” 24”. The tank weighs about 145 pounds.

The tank comes with a free 24-inch-long reef plumbing kit. If you are interested to check out the current price at Amazon, click here.

75 Gallon Tank:

A 75-gallon tank can be an awesome started turtle tank for all aquatic turtle species. In fact, for most of the species, it will be enough for their whole life. I will recommend buying a 75-gallon tank from Amazon. They have great value for such a tank. If you want to check out details on Amazon, click here.

50 Gallon Tank:

A 50-gallon tank is perfect for any species of baby aquatic turtles. However, you may need to upgrade to a larger tank when the turtle grows up. Amazon has a reliable 50-gallon tank. Its dimensions are 18” x 24” x 40”. Click here to check out the current price on Amazon.

UVB and Heat Lamp:

turtle uvb and heat lamp

Turtles need two types of lights in their habitat: they are UVB light and a heat lamp. Both are must for the proper growth of a turtle.

Here are some important notes on lighting a turtle tank:

  • The light should be set in such a way that shines the basking area of the tank.
  • Aquatic turtles need full spectrum light. So, you need both UVB and UVA for your turtle. However, a good UVB bulb will also produce UVA. UVB bulb should be the main light in your turtle tank.
  • Along with a UVB bulb, you’ll also need a heat lamp. The heat lamp will provide necessary warmth to the basking place, much like sunlight in nature. It will help the turtle to completely dry off. A heat lamp is an essential lighting item for a turtle tank.
  • You need to stimulate a 24-hour day/night cycle on your turtle tank. It means that you should only keep the lights on for 12 to 14 hours long which stimulates day in the tank. It should be followed by a 10 to 12 hours long darkness which stimulates night. A timer will be perfect for this process as doing it manually is tiresome. Here is a good timer at Amazon which will be perfect for this purpose.

Why Do You Need UVB Light?

UVB light helps to produce vitamin D3 in turtles. It also helps the turtle to properly absorb calcium, minerals and other nutrients. If there is not enough UVB, the turtle may suffer from the metabolic bone disease as well as shell problems. If there isn’t any UVB for too long, the turtle may even die.

I have seen hundreds of owners who don’t even know that turtles need UVB light. It’s not their fault entirely. In most of the cases, the salesmen are ignorant of this fact and they don’t tell about UVB to their customers. As a result, people are ignorant about the importance of UVB light for turtle keeping.

Keep in mind that, UVB lights are a little bit pricier than general lights. So, if you are not prepared to buy a UVB light, it is better if you not get a turtle yet. Only get a turtle when you can get a decent UVB light. Also, change the UVB bulb every six months.

It is very tricky to get a UVB light for reptiles especially if you are new. Don’t get a bulb just because it says ‘Full-Spectrum’ or ‘Sun Spectrum’ on the cover. these type of bulbs provide next to nothing UVB to the turtle.

Why Do You Need a Heat Lamp?

Like UVB bulbs, a heat lamp is also important for an aquatic turtle habitat. It is very important that the basking place remains dry all the time. A heat lamp does that. It helps to keep the turtle completely dry when it is basking. Moreover, it also helps the turtle to process nutrients inside the body.

The basking place needs to be slightly warmer than the temperature of the water, preferably around 85 to 92 degrees Fahrenheit. You can achieve and maintain this temperature with a good heat lamp.

I don’t like to buy individual items if I can get them in a package. Fortunately for us, Zoo Med has made a combo light for turtle which solves all the lighting problem for you. This combo pack consists of a 50-watt halogen heat lamp and 13 watts 5.00 UVB CFL which is perfect for all types of aquatic turtles. I use it all the time and recommend others to use it too. Click here to check out the current price on Amazon.

Powerful Filter:

turtle canister filter

I can’t stress enough how important it is to invest in a good powerful filter for a turtle tank. It will not only help you to keep the tank clean, it is also beneficial for the health of the turtle. As turtles are generally messy animals, it is particularly tough to keep their tanks clean. A powerful filter will make your job easier by a 100 times.

There are many types of filter in the market such as power filters, sponge filters, corner filters, top filters, hang on back filters, canister filters etc. However, not all of them are suitable for a turtle tank. In fact, I only thing canister filters are best suited for keeping a turtle tank clean.

Canister filters are the most powerful type of filter in the market. Admittedly they cost a bit more than other filters, but they are excellent at keeping turtle tank clean. Even though a canister filter costs much more than other types of filters, you’ll get more value from it in the long run.

That’s why I always suggest if you have the budget go for a canister filter. They don’t cost a lot and they’ll surely make your life a whole lot easier. With canister filters, you don’t have to spend all of the time cleaning your turtle tank. You can actually sit back and enjoy your turtles.

Though there are many canister filters out there on the market, I love Hydor’s professional external canister filter.  It comes in many sizes and can clean up to 125-gallon tank. This is an all in one filtration package: you can get mechanical filtration, biological filtration as well as chemical filtration from it. Setting up the filter is also very easy and straightforward. Last time I checked Amazon had a great deal for this filter. Click here to check out the current price of this amazing canister filter.

Water Heater and Thermometer:

turtle tank heater

If you live in a place where the temperature swing is drastic, then you may need a water heater to control the ambient temperature inside the turtle tank. I always recommend a completely submergible water heater for a turtle tank. These heaters can keep a constant temperature all the time around the year. They are also far much more reliable than other types of heaters. Submergible heaters come with suction cups. You can attach them anywhere inside the turtle tank.

  • It is better to hide the heater in some way so that your turtle can’t break it. I like to put the heater behind a wall to prevent any kind of accident.
  • Don’t install a heater if it is unnecessary. Search for the ideal temperature range for your turtle species. If it is possible to keep that temperature range without a heater, then don’t buy one unnecessarily. Heaters are ideal for places where the winter gets too cold for a turtle.

A thermometer can be your best friend when keeping a turtle tank. It is very important that you always monitor the conditions of the tank when keeping a turtle. A thermometer can help you to track down the daily temperature readings very easily.

  • If you can, use two thermometers for monitoring the temperature of the water as well as the basking place. The basking place should be slightly warmer than the water. Most of the aquatic species of turtles prefer a water temperature of 78 degrees Fahrenheit and basking place temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Humidity is also an important factor when keeping a turtle. you should also monitor the humidity level inside the turtle tank. A good hygrometer will do this for you very easily. Check out what humidity level your turtle species prefers and try to maintain that level.

I love Aqueon’s Pro Heater to use in my turtle tank. They are highly reliable and safe for turtles. You can adjust the temperature between 68 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit. The heater is fully submersible and comes with a limited warranty. I use HDE’s digital aquarium thermometer to monitor the temperature of the turtle tank. They have an awesome 3 pack value which is very cheap. The operating temperature ranges from -10 degrees Celsius to +50 degrees Celsius. The thermometer also comes with LR44 batteries.

Tank Covers:

Having a tank cover in your turtle tank is extremely important. It not only protects your turtle from external dangers but also prevents any unsupervised escape. Heatproof metal tank covers are best for using in a turtle tank.

  • The UVB bulb and heat lamps get very hot with time. If they get splashed with water, there is a high chance that they might explode. A tank cover will save your turtles from this potential threat.
  • Choose a cover that you can clamp on the top of the tank. It will prevent any escape of your turtle when you are not around.
  • I have seen many owners using glass or plexiglass tank covers which is absolutely bad for your turtle. These type of tank covers filter out the UVB rays from the UVB bulb, so your turtle doesn’t get any essential UVB. Moreover, glass tank covers can melt in the heat.

I love using steel mesh covers in my turtle tank because they don’t block out much of the light and heat. Also, air can pass through them easily and the tank will not get overheated. I always choose Zilla’s screen cover for my tanks. They have covers in multiple sizes. Also, unlike most other screen covers, there is a window on the cover which you can open to provide food in the tank. You don’t have to remove the entire cover for providing food which is really awesome.


turtle tank substrate

Turtle tanks do not need substrate. It is not a must-having item. You may have substrate in the tank for decoration purpose. Before you get substrate for turtle tank, here are some important notes on them:

  • Substrates actually make the turtle tank harder to maintain and clean.
  • Gravels are a popular choice as a substrate for turtle tanks. They create a nice appearance too. However, if you want to use gravels in the turtle tank, get the ones that are at least half inch in diameter. Otherwise, the turtles may eat them.
  • Fluorite is another popular substrate choice for a turtle tank. These are great for growing plants in the tank. Like the gravels, choose larger size fluorite for safety.

Let’s dive in more to the substrate. You actually don’t need any substrate if you don’t have any live plants to grow. I actually prefer a substrate-less tank as these are much easier to clean and manage. However, if you do have to choose a substrate, here are some good options to go for:

Sand (Fine):

It has become a popular substrate for turtle tank recently. Personally, I don’t like fine sand as these are very hard to clean. Turtles make the sand dirty very quickly and you can’t vacuum clean it easily. For some species of turtles, like softshell turtles, sand can be a good option because they like to burrow in it.

If you want to use sand, then make sure it is very clean in the first place. Wash the sand with clean water thoroughly before placing it in the tank. Keep in mind that, even after setting up the tank, you do need to maintain and clean the sand on a regular basis. Buy cheap sand on Amazon from here.


I have also seen many people using gravels for a turtle tank. These are not that great but commonly found in pet stores. Gravels are not a great option for growing live plants as they have next to none nutritional value.

Another important thing is, always get gravels that are at least half inch in diameter. Otherwise, your turtle may try to eat them. Get cleanly polished gravels from here.


Fluorite can be a great choice for growing plants in an aquarium as they have great nutritional value. It is a type of clay gravel which is porous and mainly designed for growing live plants. Always get very clean fluorite in the first place. After you first set up the tank, it will remain cloudy for some time. Give the tank some time to settle down, everything will get clear eventually. Using aquarium filter floss is also a great tip to clear up the aquarium quickly. Amazon has some great deal on Fluorite. Check out the latest price from here.

Crushed Coral:

Crushed coral can be a great substrate for saltwater or brackish-water turtles. You can also mix it with another type of substrate. Crushed corals raise the pH level of the turtle tank water significantly. If you want to grow rooted plants, then crushed coral might not be a very good option. Get high quality crushed coral from here.

Basking Place:

turtle floating dock

Basking place is a must for aquatic as well as semi-aquatic turtles. The basking place should be 25% of the total area for an aquatic turtle. On the other hand, for a semi-aquatic turtle, you need at least 50% basking area.

Here are some important notes on basking place:

  • Basking places are very important because turtles dry themselves completely on the basking place. it is essential for the healthy growth of a turtle.
  • A good rule of thumb is the diameter of the basking place should be at least 1.5 to 2 times larger than the length of the turtle.
  • There are many options when choosing a basking place. you can buy a basking place readymade from different online stores such as Amazon. I recommend buying a readymade basking place as these are great and don’t cost much. However, you can also use a large rock or log if you don’t want to buy one. Floating docks are great as basking platform because they don’t take up much valuable place inside the turtle tank.
  • If you want to use a large rock or log from nature, make sure that it is clean and germ-free. You can boil the rock or log in a large pot of hot water to kill all the germs, microorganisms and algae.
  • Make sure the basking platform doesn’t have any sharp edges to it. Otherwise, your turtle may hurt itself.

As you have guessed, there are hundreds of types of basking place for turtles in the market. All of them can be great. However, I love above the tank basking platforms for my turtle tank. I like them a lot because they don’t take any space inside the turtle tank. Moreover, your turtle gets to enjoy some additional room with an above tank basking platform. Amazon has some great above tank basking platforms. Click here to check out the latest price on Amazon.

Using a ramp:

turtle ramp

Sometimes, a ramp is needed for a turtle tank. It is something which turtles use to get on to the basking area. In most cases, the basking platform itself should have a way so that the turtle can get onto it. However, if for some reasons it doesn’t, then you may need to get a ramp.

  • Getting a ramp is very easy and you don’t have to spend any money for it. You can get an inclined or sloping log and attach it to the basking place in one end. Keep the other end of the log in the water. Make sure the log is attached firmly. Your turtle can use it to get on to the basking area.


Let me start by telling that decorations are not a must having item in a turtle tank. In fact, I don’t like having decorative items in my turtle tank as they take up valuable swimming place inside the turtle tank. However, if you want, you can add some decorative hiding places inside the tank. Not only they will increase the beauty of the tank, but also your turtle can hide inside them whenever necessary.

Here are some notes on decorations for a turtle tank:

  • Logs, smooth rocks etc. can be a great decorative item. Not only they make the tank more natural, they are also great for providing hiding places to the turtle. Just make sure that you are not putting too many rocks or logs inside the tank as they take up swimming room inside the tank.
  • Many people use real plants inside turtle tank. I never do this because your turtle will destroy the plants in an instant. There are actually few plants which can survive in a turtle tank.
  • Don’t have any decorative items that have a sharp edge to it.
  • Decorative items picked directly from nature should be sterilized before they are placed inside the tank.
  • Use items that are at least 1 inch in diameter. Otherwise, your turtle may try to eat it.
  • Enclosure type decorations are not preferable for a turtle tank because your turtle can get stuck inside those.

The last step:

Congratulations, if you have read all the way till now. We have come to the last step for turtle tank setup. In this step, all you need to do is fill the turtle tank with clean, safe water. Most of the aquatic turtles prefer a water depth of 5 to 6 inches.

  • The minimum water depth should be three-quarters of the length of your turtle. Otherwise, your turtle may get upside-down accidentally inside the tank.
  • Try to provide distilled water in the turtle tank as they are completely safe for turtles.

My guide to turtle tank setup has come to an end. I hope you’ve liked the article and got enough value from it. If you still have any questions on turtle tank setup, do not hesitate to comment in the comment section below. I’ll get to it as soon as I can.



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