The choice of a tortoise substrate in the enclosure often causes uncertainty to keepers.
Knowing which substrate is good for your pet and which aren’t should relieve you of any concerns that you might have for him.
Some substrates are great, and others can be harmful. We will help you to choose the best tortoise substrate and show you exactly how to avoid the substrates that could kill your tortoise.
From the moment your tortoise hatches from the egg, it is constantly in communication with the ground, it’s almost like wired to it.
Using the best tortoise substrate plays an important role in the health and well-being of your pet tortoise and so you have to do your best to make the right choice.
Since your tortoise will spend so much time on the substrate, the type of substrate and its condition are very important.
A substrate that is too wet can cause your tortoise to develop shell rot, respiratory infections, and other health issues and a dry substrate can also make your tortoise be dehydrated.
The choice of your substrate has to be based on your tortoise species, enclosure setup, room humidity, and temperature.
The substrate has to also be one that doesn’t cause you allergic reactions.
Zoo Med Eco Earth Loose Coconut Fiber Tortoise Substrate
- Can be used with other reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates
- Completely natural make up
- Creates a very natural vivarium set up for your tortoise
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Understanding Tortoise Substrates
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.
Although grassy lawns are good substrates, letting your tortoise stay for so long on such an environment is not healthy for it.
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
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:
Type of Substrate
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Some other types of substrates that are not commonly recommended but some tortoise keepers use:
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 8 Top-Rated Tortoise Substrates
Best Budget Buy
Best Outdoor Tortoise Substrate
Best Indoor Tortoise Substrate
Best Artificial Grass Tortoise Substrate
Best Plantation Soil Tortoise Substrate
Best Coconut Tortoise Substrate
*Ratings are from Amazon at the time of publication and can change
The Best Tortoise Substrate
1. Zoo Med Eco Earth Loose Coconut Fiber 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.
- Creates a very natural vivarium set up for your tortoise
- Can be used with other reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates
- Completely natural make up
- Can be used damp for tropical species
- It is messy and hard to clean
2. Zoo Med Forest Floor Bedding
Next on our list is the Zoo Med Forest substrate. It is made of 100% natural cypress mulch, making it a natural all green product.
No fear of chemicals coming in contact with your tortoise making it very safe for use.
It is a top seller based on the good reviews and purchases so if you are looking for a verified product, choose this.
The forest floor bedding works great for not just tortoises but other animals like frogs, lizards, snakes, land turtles, tarantulas, salamanders, and others.
It is a sure bet to make your vivarium look very natural, giving your pet tortoise a home away from home.
- Provides your vivarium with a natural forest floor look
- Retains moisture for humidity
- Made from natural materials, making it safe and chemical-free
- Great for other animals like snakes, amphibians or tortoise species from the tropics
- May be difficult to spot dirt in this substrate
3. Exo Terra Plantation Soil Terrarium Substrate
This substrate is made from compressed coconut husk fiber from the plantations of tropical Asia.
This ecological substrate is ideal for raising the humidity in the terrarium and is safe for tortoises, salamanders and burrowing or digging animals.
Exo Terra Plantation Soil Tropical Terrarium Substrate can also be used as an incubation medium because of its hygroscopic properties.
This 100% natural substrate can even be used as a nutritional planting soil for live plants in a terrarium set-up.
Overall this will make great bedding for mostly all types of tortoises. A few tips that we can give is that you must mix with soil to keep more damp otherwise it will become too dry and blowing on it will spread it everywhere.
- 100 percent natural substrate; Ideal for natural terrarium set-ups
- Increases humidity in terrariums
- Stimulates natural digging and burrowing behavior
- Nutritional planting soil for live plants
- Vermiculite is needed in order to retain moisture
4. ReptiChip Premium Coconut Tortoise Substrate
This is a good example of a substrate that absorbs odor and retains the humidity in your tortoise home.
These features make the living environment healthy and comfortable for your pet.
Other perks of using this substrate are ease of cleaning, no need for constant misting, and the absence of dust.
A pack of this substrate comes with compressed chipped coconut that is expandable up to 72 quartz when water is added.
You can control the amount of water that is contained here by drying the substrate if the water content is too much for your tortoise.
You have control over the humidity of your pet’s vivarium and thus help your tortoise maintain its desired humidity level.
- Made of 100% chipped coconut husk
- Swells when water is added
- Creates a natural living environment for your tortoise
- Allows you to control the humidity of your pet’s vivarium
- It is very dusty
5. Zoo Med Terrarium Moss
Completely natural moss cage substrate makes it perfect for amphibians and wetland environment reptiles.
It’s also great for use in humidifying shelters for all types of reptiles and amphibians.
You will get a good amount of substrate for the price paid, and we’ve seen it being sold for a much higher price at local pet stores.
This version of moss is non-toxic, so it’s perfectly fine for the tortoises. They will love to dig through it.
And when moist, it helps keep moisture in, also great for the tortoises. This also makes for excellent use as an egg-laying and incubation medium for a variety of reptiles.
- Available in 5 sizes including a mini compressed bale size for multiple terrariums.
- All natural green” product”
- No dyes
- Completely natural moss cage
- Some packages may contain sticks and twigs
6. Carib Sea Coco Soft Reptile Bedding
The Carib sea reptile bedding is a coarse chip bedding that provides your pet tortoise with the perfect comfort as it lives in its artificial home.
The use of this substrate promotes the growth of healthy, waste reducing organisms that keep your vivarium fresh and clean in between changing of the bedding.
The bedding comes in a package that contains fresh coconut husks. There are very good at odor control and do this far better than many other types of bedding.
This bedding is versatile and can be used for other animals like arachnids, iguanas, tarantulas, snakes, frogs, salamanders, and many others.
It is natural and free from harmful chemicals so your pet is safe to live on it.
- Keeps the vivarium fresh
- Has good odor control
- Great for use with other pets like amphibians and reptiles
- Free from chemicals
- Soft and ensures comfort
- A little too rough and chunky
7. Galapagos Cypress Tank Mulch Forest Floor Bedding
The use of Cypress mulch forest floor bedding has some specs that give your tortoise a good level of comfort.
It absorbs a great amount of liquid, controlling the humidity of the habitat better. It is also packed with small barks that facilitate the feeding habits of your tortoise.
You have nothing to worry about as it is 100% safe and free from chemicals, so your pet tortoise doesn’t get exposed to harmful substances.
The substrate is thoroughly washed to remove all tiny particles, giving you something perfect.
- Has high absorbency which is necessary to control humidity
- Packed with small barks to improve the feeding habits of your tortoise
- Washed and free from tiny particles
- The product contains dust and dirt
8. SavvyGrow Artificial Grass Fake Astro Turf
This can make for a good substrate in case you just started owning a baby tortoise.
The idea behind the product is genius. Other than a couple of stands of fake grass that seemed loose, it seems very durable and pretty realistic considering it is artificial.
The product does drain beneath so be sure to put pads underneath if you don’t want your deck or floor beneath stained.
- UV, fire and corrosion resistant; withstands rain, sun, and wear and tear
- Safe for reptiles
- Has drainage holes
- Safe and non-toxic
- It cleans up easily and washes off without any problem
- Needs to be cleaned regulary because the smell can get bad
9. Zoo Med Repti Bark
Made from natural bark of fir trees the Zoo Med Repti Bark substrate will absorb moisture and then releases it which creates humidity for the tortoise.
This makes it the perfect substrate for tortoises who love more humid habitats. Not only this can create humidity but it can also conduct heat evenly.
This will keep your tortoise busy as this substrate stimulates natural digging and burrowing activities.
It’s more suited for a more tropical type of species as it replicates the natural environment.
It’s washable, reusable, and you can put it in your yard if you wish. It lasts a long time and needs to be changed occasionally.
We’ve also seen that they are being sold for a much greater price at local pet stores.
- All Natural green” product”
- Lasts up to one year
- It smells nice
- May contain unwanted parts
10. Fluker Labs Repta-Bark All Natural Bedding
This orchid bark is excellent natural bedding for all high-humidity-loving reptiles.
Bigger pieces mean less chance for ingestion and less dust. Too many substrates end up leaving a lot of residue in the water bowl.
This one is nice sizing pieces of bark, up to half an inch.
We have not encountered any insect problems as we’ve have seen reported with other brands.
Exactly what the tortoises need. You can soak them for about 15 minutes then spread them in the tortoise enclosure to keep the nice humidity high.
You can also layer some peat moss on top after soaking with water to keep the humidity up.
- Good at absorbing humidity
- All Natural Bedding
- Natural bedding for all high humidity loving reptiles
- Helps a bit with the smell
- Molds in high humidity
- Will dirty up and get dusty
Guide To Buying The Best Substrate For Tortoise
We 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 turtle.
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.
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 Mediterranian species.
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.
When buying a substrate, you should consider the following:
- If you have a baby tortoise, having more moisture is permitted. 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 your pet thrives in a dry climate, make use of a substrate that has dry clippings or coconut coir.
- The use of sand substrate is not advisable because your tortoise can eat it and get impacted. If you, however, want to make use of sand, they are some that are digestible and you should stick to those types.
- If you want to allow your pet to stay outdoors, then 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.
Outdoor Tortoise Habitat 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 Habitat 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.
Tortoise Substrate Tips
- Maintain enough heating, with temperature ranges to allow thermoregulation
- Provide proper hydration through water bowls, spraying and humid hides within the enclosure
- Keep the food off the substrate by using dishes
- House the babies/hatchlings on a paper towel or reptile carpet
- Provide furnishings that stimulate natural behaviors like climbing, basking and foraging.
- Monitor the substrate for mites and mold growth
- When using bedding for horses or small animals, make sure you filter it and remove the sharp pieces
Commonly Asked Questions About Tortoise Substrates
Q: Do Tortoises Need A Substrate?
Yes, they need something to dig into to regulate their temperature
Q: 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.
Q: How deep should tortoise substrate be?
Anywhere from 2-12 inches is fine
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: Can Tortoise Eat Substrate?
Yes, but as long as he is well hydrated you won’t have to worry about impaction.
Q: 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.
Q: What Tortoise Substrate For Hibernation?
Coco coir is suitable for most tortoises when you looking for a type of bedding to hibernate.
Q: 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.
The use of a substrate is essential in giving your pet tortoise a good and healthy environment, where it can be comfortable.
Its natural way of life is accustomed to its natural habitat and so providing it with an environment similar to its natural home helps it grow better.
The use of a substrate ensures that it is healthy and free from infection, shell rot or impactions.
Zoo med eco loose coconut fiber substrate gives your vivarium a natural feel. It mimics the natural habitat of your tortoise and retains moisture, so as to maintain the humidity of the enclosure. Made of coconut fiber, it is perfect for your tortoise.
Zoo med forest floor bedding also maintains the natural atmosphere of your tortoise habitat, making it feel at home. Free from chemicals, your tortoise is not exposed to harm and can stay healthy. It controls the humidity of the enclosure and prevents your tortoise from dehydration.
If you are confused about which substrate to choose, you can narrow your picks to these two and make your choice from any of them.
In the meantime if you own a russian tortoise you can use our other guide talking about substrates with the russian tortoises as a species in mind.
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