Turtle Tank Setup: A Guide To Help You Do It Easily

Turtles are calm, friendly, and have decades of life expectancy, making them ideal pets. Those interested in keeping turtles as pets should know turtles are semi-aquatic animals. If you want to replicate their natural habitat inside your house, you need to go for a turtle tank setup. 

People got confused over setting up a tank for a turtle because it looks a bit complicated if someone is going to do it for the first time. Unless it is the right size and resembles ponds and seashores, turtles would not enter the aquarium. I will completely guide you about turtle aquarium setup in this article, so stay here.

What Do You Need For A Turtle Tank Setup?

People often mix turtles and tortoises with each other. If you do not know the difference between the two, then let me explain it to you: tortoises are land animals, but turtles are semi-aquatic or aquatic. They look similar and have the same requirements for care and habitat but are entirely different species. 

From this, you can understand that if you want to keep turtles as pets, you must be ready for more maintenance as they need proper habitat and a turtle terrarium where they can swim and relax. Pet turtles fall into the following two sub-categories:

Semi-Aquatic Turtles

Painted turtles, Mud turtles, Pond turtles, and musk turtles are semi-aquatic species of turtles. They split their time basking under heat lamps and swimming inside the water tank.

Aquatic Turtles

Red Eared Slider turtles, Cooter Turtles, and Map Turtles Are some aquatic-turtle species. These turtles stay inside the water and come to the surface to breathe.

For setting up the turtle tank, you need the following items:

  • Turtle TankĀ 
  • Water Filter
  • Light and heater
  • Turtle Tank SubstrateĀ 
  • Basking Dock

Turtle Tank 

Choosing the right turtle aquarium can be tricky as they come in a variety of types and sizes. To make the decision, though, different turtle species have varying requirements for the turtle tank size. You will make your buying process simple if you thoroughly understand these factors:


For turtle tank setup, you need an aquarium, and they are of three types:

  1. Standard Glass AquariumĀ 
  2. Acrylic AquariumĀ 
  3. Stock TanksĀ 

Acrylic turtle aquariums are great if you have a reasonable budget, as they are 10 to 20 times stronger than standard glass aquariums. It allows pet owners to keep an eye on their turtles from all angles. Among all standard glass tanks, it is widespread and my favorite one.

If you go for stock tanks, the only downside is you can see your turtle from the top. From the turtles’ point of view, these aquariums are a replica of natural water resources. Mostly these stock turtle tanks are larger in size and are suitable for adult turtles. 


When you are buying the tank for your turtle, ensure that it can hold 10 gallons of water per inch of the turtle shell. You can get an estimate of your turtle tank by measuring the turtle from the front of the shell to the back of the shell. The size you will get is called straight carapace length

You have to get a tank with 10 gallons of water storage per inch of turtle shell size. I suggest you get a 20 gallon water tank if you raise baby turtles, as they usually have 1Ā½ to 2 inches in length. For adult turtles, you can opt for either a 50 gallon water tank or 100 gallon water tank. 

By following this rule, you will offer your turtle a quality water life. A 10 gallon water per inch of a turtle inside the aquarium is pretty enough for the turtle’s health and swimming needs. For this reason, turtles poop and pee a lot in the water, so that amount of water will easily dilute turtle waste.

You will notice the size of the turtle tank is insufficient for your turtle as it grows because they do not get bigger in length but in width and height as well. As a turtle grows in all three dimensions, you have to get the right size according to 10 gallons per inch of turtle shell length, right? A big no.

why big turtles need a large turtle tank

From the image, you can understand that as turtles grow, their size increases from every angle. Let me give you an example of my box turtle, which had a 1.5-inch size and 0.1-pound weight seven years ago, but now it is fully grown and has a 6-inch size but weighing 1.2 pounds.

You can see the size increases four times, but the weight increases 12 times. Therefore, you need to increase the limit to 15 or 20 gallon water tank per inch of the turtle shell. Are you confused? Adult turtles excrete more waste inside the aquarium, so they require more water during the turtle tank setup.

Filter For Turtle Tank

Filtration is really important for keeping the water inside the turtle aquarium safe and clean for turtles. You have to clean the water frequently as turtles produce more waste than fish. There are three types of filtration needed for a turtle tank:

  1. Mechanical FiltrationĀ 
  2. Biological FiltrationĀ 
  3. Chemical FiltrationĀ 

Mechanical filtration is when you clean the tank water from uneaten food, poop, and any other physical waste. Similarly, biological filtration is to remove the wastes created in the water as a result of physical waste. It includes ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite.

These substances are produced by the good bacteria in the tank to make the physical waste less harmful for turtles. And chemical filtration is done to take the toxic chemicals out of the aquarium water. It is usually done in the form of activated carbon. 

If you ask me which one is more important, the biological Filter is crucial as it saves the natural habitat inside the tank. After that, I will rate mechanical filtration as the necessary filtration. But it does not mean that chemical filtration is not beneficial. It is actually done to remove chlorine and other chemicals from the tank.

To do the job perfectly, you need the right type of filter for the turtle tank setup. Turtle tank filters are of three types:

  1. Canister FiltersĀ 
  2. Power FiltersĀ 
  3. Internal FiltersĀ 

As you are now aware of these common types of turtle aquarium filters, let me explain their functioning and use in detail. 

Canister Filters are great for turtle tanks, and I love the way they take water in and out of the aquarium and clean it. These filters rest underneath the turtle tank stank and are the size of a bucket. They are excellent for large turtle tanks with a water storing capacity of up to 50 gallons due to their huge filtration capacity. 

As canister filters have a high flow rate and a lot of space for media, I always prefer them over other filters. Remember that they can be a little pricey and will cost you above $50. The next one is to hang on the back or power filters for turtle tanks which look like a little box. These filters hang on the edge of aquarium walls.

Light And Heater

Turtles require lighting in the water tank during the day as they do not care if there is no light in the aquarium. You can choose between UVA or LED lights, as both are good options for lighting. These lights should remain on for 12 to 14 hours a day. Using a lamp fixture, you can use a light timer for it and keep the lamp at a distance of 12 to 18 inches from the tank. 

We know turtles are sensitive animals when it comes to temperature. They do not go to water if its temperature is not as per their needs. I suggest you get an appropriate wattage heater for your turtle aquarium. You can adjust the temperature according to your turtle species and age with the help of a turtle heater and thermometer. Keep the temperature a little warm if you are keeping baby turtles.

To make it easy for you, I have made a list from which you can buy from Amazon. Let’s check:

  1. Light TimerĀ 
  2. Aqueon Optibright Max LED Tank Light
  3. Reptisun 5.0 UVBĀ 
  4. Infrared Laser Temperature GunĀ 
  5. Lamp FixtureĀ 
  6. Eheim Jager Heater For AquariumĀ 
  7. Heater Protector Guard

Turtle Tank substrate

I will talk about the substrate, what is the best kind for your turtle tank, and its purpose. Other than that, I will give you an insight into different options and their pros and cons. What is Substrate? It is actually any material sitting on the bottom of your turtle aquarium.

When you buy a glass tank for your turtle, there is nothing in its bottom, so we need to put substrate to make it look natural. A substrate adds texture, color, depth, and dimension to the tank. It hides the waste and helps the good bacteria to grow over it. 

If you understand the nitrogen cycle, you know that good bacteria are beneficial in breaking down the waste in tanks. Following are some substrates you can use in the turtle aquarium:

  • Gravel Tile.
  • Tiles or Bare BottomĀ 
  • River Rocks.
  • SandĀ 
  • Crushed CoralĀ 


Gravel is the most common substrate you will see people getting for their fish tanks as it comes in many different colors. It is a universal substrate that works well in many situations and looks natural due to its size. But it will discourage you from using it in your turtle tank because its size easily fits in your turtle’s mouth. 

Turtles will try to eat gravel as it seems to them like their food, but they do not know that it can be dangerous for them. If they eat gravel, they go into their digestive system and cause impaction. Due to this blockage, turtles will experience serious pain from which they can not get out and often die. 


Tiles or bare bottoms are a great deal as a substrate for the turtle tank. You know that tiles are pretty smooth, and waste will be visible on them. So, you need to clean the physical waste regularly, but the best part is cleaning tiles is very easy. 

If you want a low-maintenance substrate for a turtle tank, then obviously, tiles are good for you. As it will not look natural, I would say it is not for everyone. In addition, you need to cut the size according to the bottom of the turtle tank because you will not be able to find the size of tiles that fits in the aquarium.

River Rocks 

River rocks are an option that a lot of people use for turtle tanks as a substrate because it gives a serious natural look. If you are not going to use gravel only because of the small size that fits into the turtles’ mouths, then river rocks are suggested for you.

They are far bigger than gravel, so they are not going to be eaten and offer a pleasing look in the water tank. As river rocks are available in both small and large sizes, and people get them according to the species of their turtle. Ideally, the size of the rock should be bigger than the turtle’s head, so they can not consume it.

Still, I can not say river rocks are perfect substrates because of their large size. The gaps in between them will be home to waste. You will find yourself in trouble when cleaning your turtle tank with river rocks. To take the debris out of the tank, you need to mix them. If you like a natural look, then these rocks are fantastic.


I recommend sand as a turtle tank substrate as it is my favorite because of its grain size and looks nice on the aquarium bottom when you perform a turtle tank setup. Even if your turtle eats the sand, it will not cause a complicated issue. Sand can easily pass through turtles without troubling them.

Cleaning the waste and debris on the sand is effortless as it tends to sit on top of it. Try to get the sand to have the right grain size. If you add super powdery or extra fine sand to the bottom of the turtle tank, then it will constantly make the water cloudy. 

Crushed Coral

Crushed coral is a kind of substrate used for specific purposes. In a fish tank, it is utilized to raise the pH of the water and harden water. When for turtles, you should only use it with diamondback terrapin as it can utilize it as a substrate as it is look-alike gravel, but it is a little bit bigger than it.

Diamondback terrapins have specialized crush plates that allow them to nibble on that and break it up, so they can eat it. Terrapin turtles quickly consume crushed corals and completely poop them out. In my opinion, crushed coral is a bonus substrate for your turtle tank only if you have a diamondback terrapin turtle.

Turtle Basking Platform

In the wild, turtles spend their time in water and land. When they are out of the water, whether searching for food or laying under the sunlight to get heat, UVA and UVB rays are called basking. These rays help turtles get Vitamin D to absorb Calcium and digest certain foods easily.

Without basking, turtles can not properly grow, which indicates its significance for them. Captivated turtles can not bask in their indoor enclosure, so you need to provide them with the required heat and UV rays. Additionally, you need to create a turtle basking platform or buy the premade turtle tank setup.

There are two types of basking areas for your turtles: 

Floating Turtle Basking Platform

Floating basking platforms for turtles inside the tank. They can float up and down to accommodate the water level.


  • Easy to find
  • Readily available
  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Perfect for everyone


  • Can not hold large turtlesĀ 
  • Does not allow the tank to be filled all the way up
  • Turtles can eat the material and get affected

If you have a tight budget, then these basking platforms are reasonable for you. You should not buy if your turtle is bigger than 3 to 4 inches as the floating basking platform will sink in water if a heavy turtle gets on it, but for baby turtles, they are incredibly well. I am not satisfied with these platforms because they do not allow the tank to be completely filled. 

Except for box turtles, almost all species of turtles are great swimmers. They like water tanks to be full for their rigorous swimming activity, so shallow water is not an option for them. If you want to buy a floating basking platform for your turtle, then Zoo Med Floating Basking Dock is recommended from my end.

Turtle Tank Topper Basking Platforms

The turtle tank topper sits on the rim of the tank, and it has a ramp that goes into the water. Your turtle can come out of the water onto this.


  • Available in lots of stylesĀ 
  • Exceptional for big turtles
  • You can fill the tank all the way upĀ 


  • Costlier

With the turtle tank topper basking platform, you will be able to fill the aquarium completely. Using this type of basking area, your turtle will have a lot of swimming space. Adult and fully grown turtles will love the extra room for swimming and basking area right above the tank. 

Turtle tank toppers do not have any drawbacks except for being expensive compared to floating turtle basking platforms. Keep in mind that they will take up space outside the tank, but they are perfect for every aquarium and turtle species. Penn Plax Turtle Tank Topper is my favorite, and it has been working well for a long time. 

You must equip UVA and UVB light in the turtle basking platform. UVB lights are of two types: compact UVB bulbs and UVB tubes. You can go for any of these two, but bulbs are cheaper compared to tube lights. Some cases in the past reported that UVB bulbs had caused photo-kerato-conjunctivitis in animals. It happens when excessive UVB enters the eyes.

If you are serious about your pet’s health, you should buy a UVB tube light. In addition, the bulbs stop producing UVB rays after a certain period. So, it is recommended to change the UVB bulbs after a period of 6 to 9 months. You can check whether the bulb is still generating UVB rays or not using a UVB meter, but it is a little costly.

How To Setup A Turtle Tank?

If you have got everything needed for turtle tank setup, then start the turtle tank setup step by step:

  1. I hope you have got the right size turtle tank by measuring the length of your turtle. Add water twice as deep as the length of your turtle. For example, if your is 4-inch long, the water should be at least 8-inch deep in the vivarium.Ā 
  2. Put substrate at the bottom of the water. I prefer sand over other options, but the choice is yours. You can add water, grass, and plants to make your turtle tank look attractive and wild.
  3. You need to fix the filter properly, so it can easily remove waste and debris from the water. If you have a canister filter, place it out of the tank under the stand, and its pipes should be in the water. At the same time, the power filter should be adjusted on the edge of the turtle aquarium’s wall.
  4. Now, it is time to adjust the basking platform in or above the water tank, depending on the turtle basking platform you bought. Moreover, the floating basking platform should be set up in a way that it is over the water. If you have a turtle tank topper, then adjust it near the wall of the aquarium where the turtle can go when it needs to bask.
  5. Equip the UVB bulb in the vivarium using a light fixture and make sure that it is 18 to 12 inches away from the tank. Fix the LED light in the basking platform by joining it with a light timer. So, you do not need to turn the light on/off if you use a light timer for the automatic accomplishment of this task at the scheduled time.
  6. You need to keep the temperature of water optimal so your turtle’s health does not get affected. You need an aquarium heater and heater guard protector to prevent turtles from damaging the heater. Always check the temperature of the water using the infrared laser temperature gun.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Final Words 

Turtle tank setup will not be an issue if you follow what I explained in this detailed post. You have many options and flexibility when setting up a turtle tank. The choice of tank, substrate, filters, lighting, decorative, basking platform, etc., will help you create a habitat for your turtle as per your taste.