Best Turtle Tank Setup – Complete Guide

Turtles are great pets, and given the right home and care, they can live a long and happy life. An aquarium isn't just a home for a fish, they also make a great home for a turtle.

In this turtle tank setup guide, we’ll take you through how to select the correct size of tank, the best type of tank, what equipment you’ll need, how to set it all up, and how to keep it all well maintained and clean.

What Is The Best Setup For A Turtle?

When it comes to what is the best setup for a turtle, that will all depend on what specific type of turtle you have.

We’ll go over all of the things you need to consider.

1. What Size Tank For Turtles?

The first thing to consider is what size will your turtle be when it’s fully grown?

They might be small and cute when you first get them, but they can grow to be quite large.

Make sure you do your research and find out what size your type of turtle may grow to.

A general rule of thumb is to allow 10 gallons of water per 1″ of carapace length when fully grown.

How To measure Turtle Carapace Length For Best Turtle Tank Setup
How to measure a turtle carapace length

A red-eared slider tank, for example, would need to be around 80-120 gallons as males can grow up to 8-10” and females can grow to be around 10-12″ in length.

You could buy a smaller tank now and upgrade to a larger tank further down the line, but it’s more cost-effective to buy a tank that is big enough for an adult-sized turtle now and let them grow into it.

2. What Type Of Tank Is Best For Turtles?

Some people confuse a tortoise with a turtle. They may look similar, but they need completely different setups.

Tortoises live on land and can’t swim whereas turtles spend the majority of their time in the water.

Turtle VS Tortoise
Difference Between Turtles and Tortoises

As this is a how-to setup up a turtle tank guide, you are going to need an aquarium suitable for turtles.

Turtle Aquarium Material

Aquariums are made from either glass or acrylic. I highly recommend you choose a glass aquarium for a turtle as it’s far more durable and less prone to being damaged and scratched than an acrylic tank is.

Alternatively, a more budget-friendly option is to keep your turtle in a plastic tub or stock tank, they don’t look as pretty but they are much cheaper than a glass tank.

3. What Should I Put In My Turtle Tank?

Now you know what size and type of tank you need, it’s time to look at turtle tank accessories.

Turtle Tank Setup Idea
Turtle Tank Setup Idea

Filter

Turtles are messy critters and you’ll need a high-quality water filter to keep on top of keeping their water clean and safe to swim in, so your turtle doesn’t get sick.

Your aquarium will soon look like a swamp (and smell like one too!) if you don’t have a suitable filter.

Heater

Next up you’ll need a heater to keep the water at a cozy temperature so your turtle doesn’t freeze its butt off and risk picking up a respiratory illness or going into hibernation.

Basking Platform

Turtles need to bask as they are cold-blooded and rely on the environment around them to regulate their body temperature.

You’ll need to provide them with a basking platform so they have somewhere to haul themselves out of the water and dry off.

Basking Lights

Basking is important for a turtle. It lets them dry out fully preventing fungal infections and algae build-up, and they absorb UVB light to help their body produce vitamin D3. 

Vitamin D3 allows them to metabolize the calcium in their diet which in turn keeps their bones and shell healthy. Your basking area will need a basking bulb and a UVB bulb.

Plants

Plants are an optional extra in a turtle tank, but they help with keeping the water clean, help simulate your turtles’ natural environment, and some plants provide an additional food source for your turtle.

Check out my list of best plants for a turtle tank for some ideas.

Substrate

Adding a substrate is optional in a turtle tank, you can leave it bare-bottomed.

Sand, river rocks, or chunky large gravel are the preferred choice of substrate. Don’t use regular ‘fish tank’ gravel as the pieces are small and your turtle may eat them and choke.

Which is the best choice comes down to your own preference, but be aware turtles will throw around rocks and dig in the sand, making a mess. They are mischievous little guys!

Turtle Aquarium Setup

Now you’ve got your tank and equipment, it’s time for the fun part…setting up your turtle tank.

1. If you’re adding a substrate and decor items like rocks or driftwood, add the substrate first then place the other items on top of it.

2. Fill your tank with enough water to meet your turtle’s needs. The water should be twice as deep as your turtle’s shell is long so your turtle to rotate a full 360° when swimming without catching on anything. If the water isn’t deep enough your turtle could become stuck underwater and drown if it tried to flip over.

3. Dose the water with a fish-safe dechlorinator to remove any chlorine and chloramine.

4. Add your heater and filter, and make sure they both work.

5. Begin cycling your tank to establish beneficial bacteria colonies that will help remove harmful ammonia and nitrite from your tank water. I have more info on how to do this below.

6. While the tank is cycling you can then add the basking area and lights.

7. Monitor the basking area and tank water temperatures making sure they stay consistently at the required temperature for your specific type of turtle.

8. Once your tank is cycled, it’s time to add your turtle.

Cycling A Turtle Tank

Cycling your tank refers to the process of building up colonies of nitrifying bacteria that will turn the ammonia produced from turtle poop and leftover rotting food into nitrite, and then into nitrate. This is called the nitrogen cycle.

There’s a lot of debate about whether you should cycle your tank before adding your turtle. Some people will say it’s fine to add the turtle straight away, others will tell you they always cycle the water first.

The bottom line is turtles aren’t as sensitive to ammonia and nitrite as fish are, but it’s still not good for them. Personally, I’d always cycle the water first to be on the safe side.

Your tank will be considered cycled when you can consistently maintain the following levels:

  • Ammonia 0ppm
  • Nitrite 0ppm
  • Nitrate below 40ppm

You keep your nitrate levels below 40ppm by performing regular water changes.

How Long Does It Take To Cycle A Turtle Tank?

It can take anywhere from 4-12 weeks to fully cycle a turtle’s tank. This may seem like a long time, but when you think of the lifespan of your turtle it’s not actually that long. Just be patient and don’t rush this step.

How To Clean A Turtle Tank

Despite having a water filter you’ll still need to clean your turtle’s tank to stop it from resembling a swamp.

Once you establish a routine for this it’s actually pretty straightforward:

  • Daily: Remove any turtle poop, leftover food scraps, rotting plant matter, and any other detritus.
  • Weekly: Change at least 25% of your turtles’ tank water. Don’t forget to heat and dechlorinate the replacement water before you add it back to your turtle’s tank.
  • Monthly: Deep clean your aquarium as per my how to clean a fish tank guide.

Best Turtle Tank Setup Closing Thoughts…

Now you know how to go about setting up your turtle’s new home and how to keep your turtle tank well maintained, you’ll have many years of enjoyment ahead of you with your turtle.

Should your turtle become sick you can find your local turtle vet here.

Check out my aquarium health section for tips on keeping your aquarium in tip-top shape.