How to set up a Turtle Tank

Some things to consider before you set up your turtle's new home.

Setting up a turtle tank can be daunting. But, if done correctly it will provide the perfect home for your turtle. To help you out, we’ve put together a how-to guide so you know exactly what you need for your turtle tank setup.

Do your research

All turtles are small when they’re young, but some can grow into giants! Before you start setting up your turtle tank, make sure you know how much space they will need when fully grown. Some people like to start with a turtle tank setup which is suitable for their turtle’s adult size. Others prefer to start small and expand their setup as their turtle grows. If you choose the latter, remember to take into account how much space you will need for the bigger setup so that you don’t run into problems later.

Pet turtles need both a swimming area and a basking area. The type of setup will depend on the species of turtle. Some turtles like to swim but can struggle, so prefer shallower water meaning a longer tank is required. Some turtles spend most of their time basking so need a larger basking area. Others will spend more time in water so would be fine with a smaller basking area to dry off.

The best person to give you advice in this area is your turtle breeder or specialist. They’ll be able to advise you on the best setup for your turtle.

Choosing the right turtle tank

Once you know how much space you need for your setup, you can choose your tank.

The most important thing to remember is to choose a tank specifically designed to hold water.

Glass terrariums for land-dwelling reptiles are thinner and will crack under the pressure from the water. As a guide, the tank glass should be between 6-10mm thick, although this will depend on the volume of water. A fish tank or specific turtle tank is ideal.

You also need to remember that your turtle needs a basking area as well as swimming space. So, if your turtle needs 70 gallons of water, you’ll need a tank capable of holding more than that.

Speak to your turtle specialist before purchasing your tank if you’re unsure.

Positioning your turtle tank

Once you have your turtle tank, you need to decide where in your home to position it. Remember, your tank will be heavy due to the water volume, so be sure to pick somewhere that can support its weight. Ideally this would be on a ground floor level space.

It’s also a good idea not to position your turtle tank too near a window. The natural sunlight can increase the temperature in the tank, which could make it difficult for your turtle to regulate their body temperature. It can also encourage algae growth, which is both unsightly and negatively affects the water quality. 

Designing your turtle’s environment

Turtles need both land and water within their tank. As a rule, turtles need 10 gallons of water for 1 inch of shell. The water level also needs to be deep enough for your turtle to flip over and not get stuck – a depth of 1.5 times your turtle’s length is ideal.

Different species spend different amounts of time in the water or basking, which directly affects the size of the platform and overall tank setup. For semi-aquatic turtles, the basking area should take up around 50% of the tank. For more aquatic turtles the basking area should take up around 25% of the tank.

Choosing a basking platform

A basking platform is where your turtle will dry off, and absorb UVA and UVB rays. Your turtle needs enough room to easily turn around. Having a platform with a diameter of around 1.5 times the length of your turtle is usually a good size.

There are a few options for basking platforms. You can make one yourself from rocks and logs, buy a floating one, or create an above tank platform.

The most popular in the UK is a ready-made floating platform. This doesn’t take up much space and your turtle can still swim below it (just make sure the water is deep enough and there’s nowhere they could get stuck).

Another method which is gaining popularity is having a basking platform above the tank. Again, this allows for more swimming space for your turtle. But, keep in mind you need to easily be able to conduct water changes and clean your turtle’s tank, so the basking area needs to be easy to disconnect.

Whichever type of basking area you choose, you need to provide your turtle with a ramp so they can easily get in and out of the water.

Creating the right water and basking area conditions

As ectothermic (cold-blooded) creatures, turtles rely on their environment to warm them up and cool them down. The temperature and cleanliness of their environment also directly impacts their health. Therefore it’s essential the water and basking areas are correctly set up for your turtle.

Maintaining the water conditions and setting up the correct lighting can seem like a daunting task, but taking the time and effort to get it right is worth it in the long-run.

To make it simpler for you, we’ve split it up further to look first at the water and then the basking area.

Water temperature and conditions

Turtles are big waste producers and messy eaters, so you need a strong filter. A popular choice is an external filter as they tend to be 2–3 times bigger than internal ones. It’s also a good idea to select a filter with a bigger capacity than water volume you have in your tank.

The water will need to be a constant temperature, and the easiest way to achieve this is with an aquarium heater. Just remember to get a thermometer so you can easily monitor the temperature and ensure the heater is working properly. Place the thermometer on the opposite side of your turtle tank’s heater to avoid a false temperature reading.

Basking area - lamps and lighting

Alongside being cold-blooded, turtles also need periods of day and night, just like humans. This is easy to achieve – simply pop your lights on a timer. Giving turtles 12–14 hours of light and then 10–12 hours of darkness is a good duration.

Because turtles are reliant on their environment to regulate their body temperature, you need a temperature range within your tank. While the water temperature should be kept constant, the basking area should have a temperature range. You also need different types of light.

You need a basking light, which provides both UVA light and heat to your turtle, and a UVB light. The UVB light is essential, as turtles need UVB rays to be able to process and utilise calcium to keep their bones and shell healthy. You can find out more about turtle heat and lighting in our blog.

The basking bulb should be placed directly above the basking area, providing the highest temperature point in your tank. A basking bulb should be used with a reptile thermostat to allow you to create the correct temperature. Remember, temperature requirements vary between species.

It’s recommended the UVB light covers a larger area of the tank – tube UVB lights are a popular choice. You’ll need to consult the manufacturer’s instructions to make sure the distance between your turtle’s shell and the bulb is correct. Too near and you can actually burn your turtle.

It’s a good idea to have a hygrometer in your basking area – this measures humidity, and will help you make sure your basking area isn’t too hot.

Tank cover

A tank cover helps prevent your turtle from escaping and protects them from any light-related accidents. If a light were to fall into the water, your turtle will be electrocuted. Similarly, some bulbs have been known to explode, which could seriously harm your turtle. So, it is a good idea to invest in a tank cover from day one.

When choosing a cover you must make sure it won’t filter out any of the vital UVA and UVB rays that your turtle requires – it’s best to speak with your turtle breeder or specialist for advice.

Décor

Not only does it make your tank look prettier, but it makes it a nicer place for your turtle to live.

Decorations should be positioned so they don’t impede your turtle when swimming. They also must not create any small spaces where your turtle could get stuck.

Fake plants are usually the preferred option as they are low maintenance, but be sure to pick sturdy, slightly larger ones – otherwise your turtle may try to eat them.


All the equipment you need can be purchased from an aquatic or reptile shop, where the staff members will also be happy to help and answer any questions you may have.