The Best Substrates for Russian Tortoise (2021)

by Carl Crane | Updated: August 16, 2021

Some substrates are great, and others can be lethal for your Russian Tortoise, so buying the safest type of substrate should be at the top of the list.

There can be a lot of options but some tortoise keepers have limited time and resources to be able to try them all and figure out which one works the best for their pet.

Using the wrong type of substrate like sand, can cause gut impaction when it gets eaten while alfala pellets substrate can irritate the tortoise’s eyes.

The comfort of your pet is, of course, your priority and the choice of the substrate will go a long way in ensuring that your pet stays happy and healthy in an environment that is as close to its natural habitat.

No matter the choice you make, it will be in constant communication with the ground, and what it comes in contact with is very important.

The Best Substrates For Russian Tortoise

When you ask a fellow pet owner to recommend a good substrate that would be great for your tortoise, the most common and trusted substrates will be any of the following:

1. Coconut Fiber

Coconut Fiber is a natural fiber extracted from the husk of the coconut.

Coir is the fibrous material located between the hard, internal shell and the external coat of a coconut.

It naturally absorbs and breaks down odor and waste products.

Zoo Med Eco Earth Loose Coconut Fiber Tortoise Substrate

Top Pick

Zoo Med Eco Earth Substrate

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2. Aspen Shavings

Aspen Shavings are scent-free hardwood shavings that do not hold aromatic oils.

The highly absorbent shavings make ideal bedding material for reptiles with sensitive respiratory systems.

Top Pick

Living World Wood Aspen Shavings

100-percent natural aspen wood | Highly-absorbent

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3. Mosses 

Mosses ​are small flowerless plants that typically form dense green clumps or mats, often in damp or shady locations.

They can absorb water and nutrients essentially through their leaves and harvest carbon dioxide and sunlight to produce food by photosynthesis.

Top Pick

Exo Terra Forest Plume Moss

7 Quarts, 2-Pack | Good for egg-laying and incubation | Natural forest moss (no dyes or chemicals)

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4. Organic Topsoil

Topsoil is the topmost layer of soil (2-8 inch) and is a mixture of organic material and minerals.

This is the layer of earth where most of the nutrients for plants are located. 

Organic simply means that it is without any pesticides, artificial fertilizers, sewage, and genetically altered ingredients or ionizing radiation.

Top Pick

Dr. Earth Fertilizer & Soil Organic

4-Pound Bag | 100% organic and pet safe | Great for growing plants

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5. Organic Mulches

Organic Mulches are materials that are or once were living plant materials that are located on the soil surface to prevent erosion, weed germination, and reduce dehydration.

Top Pick

Zoo Med Forest Floor Bedding

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Not Commonly Used Substrates

Some other types of substrates that are not commonly recommended but some tortoise keepers still use:

1. Reptile carpets

While it may be okay to have this for your tortoise for a short time or provisional, it can get very dirty and can harbor lots of bacteria.

Also this removes the option for the tortoise to burrow

Top Pick

Zoo Med Eco Carpet

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2. Hemp Bedding

The material is essentially manufactured as bedding for horses, but it’s being used more recently with small animals and it has been growing.

There can be many pieces with very sharp ends and of sufficient strength to cause deep penetrative cuts.

We also believe that its effectiveness when providing microclimates it’s not the best.

3. Newspaper Bedding

You can use shredded paper in their enclosure instead of normal newspaper so they can hide in.

But just as a substrate then we will say no, since they like to dig into the soil.

Also if it gets soaked with water, even in the slightest, it will get very mushy. ​

Shredded paper can be used if you have sick tortoise, as you can change it fast and efficiently.

Top Pick

Shred Crinkle Paper Filler Bedding

100% recycled paper content | High Quality, little-to-no-dust

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4. Hay Substrate

Hay as a substrate for tortoises is not that great, it molds easily when it gets wet and it doesn’t last for very long.

Some tortoise keepers stated that they have been using hay as a substrate and had no issues.

Hay can be used as part of a diverse diet.

Dangerous Type of Substrates

These type of substrates that are not good for your tortoise and you should avoid using.

One of the reasons why you should avoid using these products is because they can cause gut impaction, eye irritation and can be toxic and provoke injuries.

1. Pine or Cedar Barks/Shavings

Pine and cedar can emit noxious fumes and in a confined enclosure, the tortoise cannot escape them.

These types of woods are mostly used on plant gardens since fleas, moths, and microorganisms avoid this type of wood.

2. Regular Sand

The tortoises can ingest this substrate and end up with a gut impactions of their gastrointestinal systems.

Impactions can be difficult to treat and they can sometimes be fatal.

3. Alfalfa Pellets

Make sure that your tortoise does not actively eat these substrates since they contain a high amount of protein.

Materials of this type when wet they tend to get moldy very quickly.

They can also be very dehydrating and has been associated with fungal eye and respiratory infections.

4. Walnut Shells

Ground walnut shells are a terrible substrate for tortoise and reptiles in general.

It’s made out of several tiny sharp little cubes and it can get stuck in his digestive system and even cut his insides when ingested.

The Best Combination of Substrate for a Russian Tortoise

The best substrate that you can use for a Russian tortoise is a combination of play sand and soil. 

Tortoises love to dig as it has many thermoregulatory advantages to them, the soil gives them the capacity to do so. 

While the introduction of sand helps you regulate the humidity levels.

Using sand alone is a terrible decision that can lead to many problems, but in a mixture with soil, it can be used safely.

Top Pick

Scotts Organic Group Proom Top Soil

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The proportion of the mixture is not random but depends on the humidity of your area.

If you live in a place with high humidity, then the amount of sand you will add is a little more than someone who lives in a place with low humidity.

Generally, the substrate mixture should be 70% to 80% of the soil, and the rest of the sand.

Substrates also help in providing temperature and footing regulation.

The soils and sand you will use is nothing special than the regular ones you can find lying everywhere.

But care should be taken that the soil and sand you use is 100% natural, free from fertilizers and other chemicals. The sand also has to be relatively small in size.

For the warmer months of the year, we recommend that you use coconut fiber as a substrate material because it is good at keeping the humidity high during the dry season.

Avoid keeping them for too long as they will develop mold.

Instead, change them in a month or two just to be sure your pet stays safe. 

Constantly check them to be sure they do not get overly dry because they get dusty.

Top Pick

Be Good Company Natural Sand (Refill Pack)

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Things to Look Out For In a Good Russian Tortoise Substrate

The Type of Soil

There are a lot of substrates that can be used for your Russian tortoise, but not all are good enough for use with it.

To understand its substrate needs, you have to take your mind to what its natural habitat feels like.

Russian tortoises naturally live in Asia, specifically Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

The soil is mostly clay to loam, and the PH and limestone levels are high.

So the best substrate for it would be one that is close to or the same as its native land.

The Microclimate

The microclimate of your Russian tortoise’s substrate is essential for its health. Your pet is native to semi-arid and arid land that has very low humidity.

Making a home for it with a substrate that is too humid will cause health problems. 

Humidity is not something that your tortoise can get used to and so to ensure it stays healthy and comfortable, make use of a substrate whose humidity can be regulated.

Microclimate also affects the insects and bugs that thrive in the soil. A different micro-climate means different insects and it is dangerous if the wrong insects cohabit with your tortoise.

They will cause harm and make it sick so you have to ensure that if insects appear, they will have no effect on the health of your tortoise.

Moisture Level of the Substrate

The humidity levels of a substrate for a Russian tortoise should be maintained at 30% to 50%.

Humidity is very important as it helps the tortoise maintain its body temperature.

Tortoises rely on their environment for thermoregulation and so the wrong humidity level can have severe consequences.

If the humidity is too high, your tortoise will have shell rot, and if it is too low, the shell and skin will be dehydrated.

Top Pick

Gouevn Soil Moisture Meter Sensor Soil Test Kit

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The Depth of the Substrate

Russian tortoises love to dig the soil. They dig for heat control and also for fun sometimes.

So you need to make the substrate as deep as possible to allow for this. An ideal depth would be around 6 inches. 

It is not always possible as space is a problem for some people, but make sure your substrate is no less than 2 inches deep.

This way your Russian tortoise can dig at will with no hindrances.

Tortoise Substrate Tips

  1. Maintain enough heating, with temperature ranges to allow thermoregulation
  2. Provide proper hydration through water bowls, spraying and humid hides within the enclosure
  3. Keep the food off the substrate by using dishes
  4. House the babies/hatchlings on a paper towel or reptile carpet
  5. Provide furnishings that stimulate natural behaviors like climbing, basking and foraging.
  6. Monitor the substrate for mites and mold growth
  7. When using bedding for horses or small animals, make sure you filter it and remove the sharp pieces

Commonly Asked Questions About Russian Tortoise Bedding

How Often Should You Change The Substrate Of A Russian Tortoise?

Changing the substrate depends on the depth, and also the size of the terrarium.

If your substrate is about 2 inches deep, then you will need to change it in 3 or 4 months.

If it is 6 inches deep, then you will need to change it after 5 or 6 months.

How Deep Should A Substrate Be?

Tortoises love to dig and burrow.

You should keep this in mind when filling out the substrate so as to allow for this activity.

The depth of your tortoise’s substrate should be anywhere from 2 inches to 6 inches.

What Bedding Should I Use For My Russian Tortoise?

Since tortoises love to dig, what will come to mind is play sand.

That is not a good choice as the use of sand substrate can cause many health problems.

A mixture of play sand and soil is perfect and will allow your tortoise to live happily and carry on its activities.

Conclusion

The overall health of your pet Russian tortoise is dependent on a number of factors, your choice of a substrate being one of them.

Knowing which substrate is safe for your tortoise and which aren’t should relieve you of any concerns that you might have for him.

Carl, the reptile-obsessed creator of this website, got his first turtle years ago and he made a ton of mistakes along the way. His goal now with TheCritterCove is simple: help others to not make the same mistakes that he did!