turtle tank: ideas, installation guide and habitats

You may associate aquariums with fish or aquatic invertebrates, but that’s not all you can have in your tank. Turtles are another fun aquarium pet, and in many ways it is easier to set up and maintain turtle aquariums than it is to maintain a fish tank. Consider these exciting turtle tank designs for your next DIY project!

Basic Characteristics of Turtle Tank Setups

People often confuse tortoises and tortoises or think they have similar care requirements, but in reality, they are very different creatures. Turtles are land animals, while tortoises live in water. Keeping a turtle as a pet requires maintaining an aquarium or pond where they can swim and feed.

There are many popular breeds of pet turtles, but they all fall into one of two categories:

  • Semi- aquatic turtles like the red-eared slider, painted, mud, musk and map turtles divide their time between swimming in the water and basking on their dock under the heat lamp.
  • Aquatic turtles, such as softshells and matamata, spend most of their time in the water and only poke their heads out in the sunlight.

Depending on the breed you choose, you may need a terrarium or pond with both water and land areas, or you can go completely aquatic and design your own turtle tank.

Necessary Equipment for Turtle Tanks

What kind of equipment do you need to set up your turtle tank? Obviously, the ideal size of your habitat will depend on the age and species of tortoise you choose and how many you plan to keep together. To set up your turtle terrarium or aquarium, you will need the following equipment:

water filter and heater

Turtles need very clean water to stay healthy and they also need their water to be kept at a constant warm temperature, although the precise temperature will depend on the species you go with.

  • Get a good aquarium filter with replaceable filter pads and media.
  • A sturdy underwater aquarium heater can cheaply maintain the desired temperature.

Heat lamps and lighting

Unless you keep your turtle in an outdoor pond where it will be exposed to natural sunlight, you will need to add a heat lamp and UVB light to your turtle’s setup.

  • UVB lights can be built into a heat lamp or come as a separate accessory for large or custom DIY setups.

Sunbathing Pier

Semi-aquatic species of turtles need basking docks or platforms where they can rest above the waterline. For fully aquatic turtles, a submerged rock pile under the heat lamp usually doubles as a resting and resting platform.

  • You can build a floating dock or buy a ramp tank top.

tank substrate

You don’t have to use substrate in the bottom of your turtle tank, and many experienced turtle keepers go with bare-bottom tanks to improve filter performance and make maintenance easier. You can also opt for an aquarium substrate or a product designed for live plants for a planted turtle tank.

  • An attractive option is large river rocks or pebbles, or even smooth glass chips if you prefer that look.

How to set up a turtle terrarium or aquarium

Once you’ve collected your gear, you’re ready to start assembling your turtle tank! This can be as simple or extensive a process as you like. Many people start with a simple baby turtle kit and then design a custom turtle tank with the features they want later on.

Here are the basic instructions for setting up a turtle habitat:

Fill the tank with substrate

Rinse your tank and substrate, and remove any labels from your tank. Fill the bottom of your tank with your chosen substrate (unless you are opting for a bare tank bottom).

Create a sunbathing area and fill it with water

Create the basking area by setting up your floating platform, topper, or a rock pile in your turtle tank. Arrange the ramps so that your turtle can move to each level. Check that the heat lamp and UVB lights fit over your turtle’s resting area and that the layout you just built works.

Fill your tank with water, either to the bottom for a basking platform or to the top for an terrapin tank. Use a good water conditioner to remove chlorine and other chemicals from the water.

Set up equipment and decorations

Add your aquarium heater, filtration system, and any other decorations except live plants. Set the temperature of your heater and turn it on. Start your filter and let it run for a few days before adding any animals to the setup (longer cycle if you plan on adding fish as well).

Turn on the heat and lights, and add live plants

Once your tank conditions are stable, turn on the lights and add live plants to your aquarium. Monitor the water and sunbathing dock temperatures and make any final adjustments. Once everything is ready, you can add your turtle to your new tank!

Cool Turtle Tank Ideas – 11 Options For Your Turtle Habitat

Looking for some ideas to help inspire the design of your next turtle terrarium or aquarium? These turtle tanks cover a wide range of habitats, and there’s an affordable and attractive option no matter what size turtle tank you’d like to have!

1. Basic Turtle Tub

An easy way to start your hobby of keeping turtles is with a large plastic tub like this one. With 5 different areas, your turtle can swim, bask in the lamp, grab a quick bite or even hibernate, all in the same preformed tub. This is also a good choice for a turtle hospital or quarantine tank.

2. Double turtle tank

If you’re going with a large 40 gallon turtle tank, you could split it in half and safely keep two turtles. This way your sliders won’t accidentally get hurt and they each have room to swim and their own ramp and dock to sunbathe on. An external external filter is a great way to keep a tank like this clean. Notice the lack of substrate and how clean the water looks!

3. Planted Turtle Aquarium

When raising aquatic turtles, it’s fun to plant and even create an aquascape in your aquarium to create a truly beautiful and functional home. The rock pile makes for an attractive, natural dock for sunbathing and floating plants add some shade to the water. I really like how the plants grow out of the water, so the aquarium looks like an outdoor pond.

4. Aquatic Turtle Starter Kit

If you’re not ready to invest the time and money into a custom or DIY tank, then you might want to consider purchasing a starter turtle kit. Get everything you need in one package, including a 20-gallon turtle tank with a plastic basking dock, water filter, dome heat lamp, and UVB light. You may not even need to add a water heater.

5. DIY Turtle Tank

You can get creative and use colorful aquatic substrates and other decorations to design a pond and basking dock area within your aquarium. DIY setups like these are not difficult to build and can be very attractive. A simple arrangement like this doesn’t even require hardscape in your tank, as the wooden wall holds the basking dock in place.

6. Creative Themed Turtle Aquarium

You can have fun with your turtle tank and design it around a theme, like this Pirate Turtle Aquarium! You can see the floating dock for sunbathing and the heat lamp on the right side, and how the turtle can swim under the platform to get more space. Chances are those beautiful goldfish swimming around the themed decorations are intended as food for the turtle rather than pets.

7. Simple Turtle Terrarium

A simple option is to set up a basic tortoise terrarium using coconut shell as a substrate with some pre-made bowls and hiding places like the wooden cave. Not pictured but included is a plastic water pool on the right side with a basic ramp for your turtle to swim through. This is a good choice for a starter or baby turtle habitat.

8. DIY Turtle Aquarium With Underwater Tunnel

If you’re a particularly crafty type of DIYer, you can use foam to carve out an underwater tunnel or cave that doubles as a ramp and dock for sunbathing. This is high-end craftsmanship, and the top of the ramp has been retouched to look like real rock. Observe UVB light underwater and bare bottom tank. This is an easy to keep clean design!

9. Large Turtle Aquarium

You can often keep multiple turtles in the same tank as long as they have enough space, and this large turtle tank is a great design for two or more. See how the sunbathing dock is located in the middle of the tank for easy access? I also really like the dual filtration system with intakes at both ends of the tank.

10. Basic Turtle Aquarium

You don’t have to be fancy with your turtle tank setup. This large bare bottom tank uses a simple table as a basking dock and has a bubble wand in the water to increase oxygenation and water circulation. You can see how they used hardware fabric to make their own tank top to suspend the heat lamp and UVB attachment.

11. Turtle Tank with Floating Sunbathing Area

This is a great view of a manufactured floating sunbathing dock that is angled to fit in the corner of a large aquarium. The adjustable ramp makes it easy for the turtle to get out of the water, and the floating dock allows more room for swimming and decorations underneath. You can tell he’s a happy turtle enjoying the heat and lightning!


There are many options when you are setting up a turtle habitat, and the ideal tank for your turtle will depend on whether it is a semi-aquatic or fully aquatic breed. From there, you can go for a simple turtle starter kit or design your own extensive DIY turtle tank with custom features like caves and tunnels.

We’d love to hear about your turtle tank in the comments, or join us online and share pictures of your turtle and your setup!

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