The Best Tortoise Substrate | Safe & Dangerous Lists

by Carl Crane | Updated: March 30, 2021

The choice of a tortoise substrate in the enclosure often causes uncertainty to keepers, as some are great and others quite harmful.

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

The choice of your substrate has to be based on your tortoise species, enclosure setup, room humidity, and temperature.

An inadequate substrate could cause your tortoise to develop shell rot, respiratory infections, make him dehydrated, and eventually cause impaction.

And so, adding the best tortoise substrate into the enclosure plays an important role in the health and well-being of your pet tortoise.

Understanding Tortoise Substrates

From the moment your tortoise hatches from the egg, it is constantly in communication with the ground, like almost wired to it.

An important factor to consider in the choice of substrates is that not all are the same in terms of moisture retention.

Clay and forest type substrates, for example, retain more moisture than sandy and desert type substrates.

This property affects the health of your pet tortoise as moist substrates cause shell rot in species that are original of arid habitat.

Rain forest species that are kept on dry substrates can get dehydrated so it is important to get the type of substrate that is fit for your pet species.

To prevent shell rot, you have to also provide a dry area for your tortoise.

The substrate used for those species that love to burrow should permit this action. 

Burrowing is important for some self-regulatory functions and placing your tortoise in a substrate where it is deprived of this can cause some health challenges like dehydration, resulting in bladder stones.

Thermoregulation and temperature stability are also important aspects of your tortoise life which depend on the amount and type of substrate you use. 

In nature, changes in the temperature of the substrate are minimal due to the large mass.

So it is important that you provide a good amount of substrate in their enclosure to allow for burrowing and hibernation.

Types of Substrates for Tortoises

Safe Tortoise Substrates

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.

Our Top Pick

Josh’s Frogs Compressed Coco Cradle Fiber

38 Quart Block | Expands up to 6 times | Great for growing plants | Moderate to high humidity

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2. Cypress mulch

Cypress 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.

Cypress mulch substrates can retain moisture to provide humidity to the tortoise enclosure.

This type of substrate makes it ideal for tropical species of tortoises.

Our Top Pick

Zoo Med Forest Floor Bedding

8 L Size | 100% natural cypress mulch | All natural green product

If you click this link and make a purchase, we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

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.

Our Top Pick

Exo Terra Forest Plume Moss

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

If you click this link and make a purchase, we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

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.

Our Top Pick

Dr. Earth Fertilizer & Soil Organic

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

If you click this link and make a purchase, we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

5. 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.

Our Top Pick

Living World Wood Aspen Shavings

100-percent natural aspen wood | Highly-absorbent

If you click this link and make a purchase, we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.


Occasionally Used Tortoise Substrates

Some other types of substrates that are not commonly recommended but some tortoise keepers 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.

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.

Our Top Pick

Shred Crinkle Paper Filler Bedding

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

If you click this link and make a purchase, we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

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 Tortoise Substrates

Next, are the types 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

The scent of pine and cedar is a result of volatile oils that can be very toxic when heated.

They emit noxious fumes and in a confined enclosure, the tortoise cannot escape them.

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

2. Walnut Shells

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

It’s made out of several small sharp little cubes, like a safety glass when it’s shattered.

It can get stuck in his digestive system and even cut his insides when ingested.

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 break down easily when in contact with moisture, trap all sorts of “leavings” from your pet, and are usually difficult to clean.

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

4. Regular Sand

Never place sand in your tortoise’s enclosure since some tortoises ingest these substrates and end up with impactions of their gastrointestinal systems.

Impactions can be difficult to treat and occasionally are fatal.

Local pet shops generally sell ‘special’ substrates that are promoted as ‘ideal’ for use with tortoises and turtles and in our experience, this is not the case. We don’t recommend any of these ‘commercial’ substrates.

The Best Tortoise Substrate

Top on my list of best tortoise substrate is the zoo med eco earth coconut fiber substrate.

It is the ideal product if you want to give your pet a more natural terrarium.

It is not only good for your pet tortoise but is ideal for all kinds of reptiles, invertebrates, and amphibians. 

It is versatile and can be made wet to suit the needs of your tortoise, especially the small ones as they need to be hydrated more.

This coconut fiber substrate is made from the husk of coconuts. Apart from its use as a tortoise substrate, it can also be used in gardens and filling for potted plants.

Zoo Med Eco Earth Loose Coconut Fiber Tortoise Substrate

Our Top Pick

Zoo Med Eco Earth Substrate

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Pros

Cons


Guide For Choosing Substrate For Tortoises

Safe Substrate

I feel like when it comes to turtle substrates its something that’s quite often overlooked and not seem something as important as lighting or housing a tortoise.

The wrong substrate can actually be lethal.

There were some cases reported that using the wrong substrate can end up with the death of the tortoise.

Substrate that Matches your Tortoise Species

So it’s really important to find the right substrate for the species of the tortoise that you own.

Because tortoises can originate from all over the world, they are all from different environments and different diets.

There are tropical species that live in a very humid environment and need high levels of proteins and Mediterranean species that live in a relatively dry climate and need really low levels of protein in their diet.

The substrate should be of the right composition, especially when you are mixing the common ones with those that are not good to be used alone.

The various substrates offer a different level of moisture. 

The clay types of substrates will hold in more moisture than the more sandy substrates, so tropical tortoises will need a substrate that holds in more moisture then Mediterranean species.

The Right Amount of Substrate

When placing the substrate on the floor into your tortoise enclosure, it should be enough to cover up the entire floor and have a thickness of at least half an inch. 

Doing this ensures that your pet is safe and healthy.

Whatever location you have in mind for your pet tortoise, ensure that their vivarium is not too moist.

Too much moisture makes them susceptible to infection if they are injured or unhealed from shedding. In all, your choice of substrate depends on the species of tortoise you have.

If you Have a Baby Tortoise

Having more moisture is permitted when it comes to baby tortoises.

You should try to soak them in the water at least twice daily because they do need a good amount of hydration at this stage.

When they get properly soaked, they drink some of the water, keeping them even more hydrated and healthy.

If your Tortoise Needs Medium to High Levels of Humidity

You should choose a substrate that can hold moisture for long periods.

Examples of such substrates are those that contain sphagnum moss, coconut coir, and peat moss.

Avoid using substrates of sand, pine shavings, and cedar ships because they get toxic when heated, and sand can cause your pet to have an impaction.

If you Want to House your Tortoise Outdoors

The type of substrate you use won’t matter.

This is because the natural outdoor environment will take care of the needs of your tortoise.

If you want to give your pet a more friendly and homely environment, then adding some peat moss will do the trick.

Ensure that your environment is free from chemicals and that the substrate doesn’t have chemicals too.

Our Top Pick

Be Good Company Natural Sand (Refill Pack)

If you click this link and make a purchase, we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

Outdoor Tortoise Substrate

A lot of tortoise keepers also keep their pet outside in lawns and gardens, and they are fairly moist and can lead to shell rot for the Mediterranean species, so if you are housing them outside, they will need areas to graze which can be great for species like leopard tortoises and sulcatas.

Tortoises must also be able to make shallow holes if they choose too.

This helps create microclimate into their enclosure and also prevents dehydration which can lead to health issues.

Not only do they dig down to regulate their temperature but also to regulate their fluid loss so that’s why you must find the bedding that will allow them to do this.

The most significant part of any habitat is that it has minimum ground moisture, so ensuring that the outside habitat has adequate drainage to keep the ground dry should be one of your top priorities. 

When choosing to create an outdoor tortoise enclosure for your tortoise, it can be advantageous for your time because it requires less cleaning to remove soiled bedding substrate and droppings.

Be sure to check the elevation change within the habitat. Dirt heaps can be formed if they are not already present so be sure to redistribute soil to make a more uneven ground.

There is a wide variety of tortoises so obviously, you will need separate substrates for different species.

Also, check that there are no ditches within the tortoise enclosure. Another material that can be used to create elevation changes is with stones and rocks. 

Tortoises as much as they like to burrow they also love to climb, so you can add other parts throughout the habitat that can be climbed on.

Indoor Tortoise Substrate

The bedding of the habitat can be a mixture of several materials and require more regular maintenance.

Daily examination and cleaning should include removal of soiled material, and replacement of the substrate, as well as refilling the water dish and food. 

This may be done every single day and several times a week for the whole enclosure.

To mimic the tortoise’s natural environment you should create elevation within the enclosure by pushing the bedding into mounds.

In an indoor tortoise enclosure, try to do one to three mounds, including one next to the heat light which will act as a basking area.

Our Top Pick

Zoo Med Premium Repti Bark Natural Fir Reptile Bedding

100% pure fir bark | Washable and Re-useable | Good moisture retention

If you click this link and make a purchase, we earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

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 Tortoise Substrates

Do Tortoises Need A Substrate?

Yes, they need something to dig into to regulate their temperature

How Much Substrate Should A Tortoise Have?

The recommended depth of substrate for a tortoise is about 2 inches.

For arid tortoise species, the proportion of sand in the mixture should be increased and decreased for humid species.

How deep should tortoise substrate be?

Anywhere from 2-12 inches is fine

Is Sand A Good Substrate For Tortoise?

Sand causes impaction and can kill your tortoise if ingested.

If you must use sand, make use of the digestible type or in mixed proportion with other good substrates.

Can Tortoise Live On Sawdust 

It is not good for your tortoise to live on sawdust because just like sand, it can cause impaction.

It is also highly flammable and very dusty.

What Is The Best Substrate For Hermann Tortoises?

Hermann tortoises are burrowers and need a substrate that allows them to do this.

Good substrates for them include orchid bark, shredded aspen, pulverized coconut, and cypress mulch.

When thinking if a substrate, bear in mind that it should be easy to clean and suitable for digging.

Can Tortoise Eat Substrate?

Yes, but as long as he is well hydrated you won’t have to worry about impaction.

How To Make A Tortoise Substrate?

Most people like to combine different types of substrates, but the most common way is to buy some topsoil and some play sand and mix them together.

What Tortoise Substrate For Hibernation?

Coco coir is suitable for most tortoises when you looking for a type of bedding to hibernate.

How Often Should I Change The Tortoise Substrate?

As long as you spot clean then the substrate can last a very long time without needing to be changed.

How often to change it is a personal decision.

Conclusion

The use of a substrate is essential in giving your pet tortoise a good and healthy environment, where it can be comfortable.

The tortoise’s way of life is accustomed to its natural habitat and so providing him with a similar environment will make him more happy and healthy.

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!