How to Set Up a Turtle Tank in 9 Simple Steps

by Carl Crane | Updated: March 18, 2021

Taking care of a turtle can be a satisfying and relaxing activity, but you also need to take this duty seriously by setting up an appropriate tank for your friend.

A good turtle tank will consist of both water and land areas, and the conditions of the tank should be sustained by proper lighting and filtering.

Replicating the natural environment of a turtle should also be on the top of your list by adding different types of live plants or basking platforms.

By accomplishing the things we just mentioned, not only you will have a healthy pet but he will also grow to be happy with his new home.

In this article, we will put you through everything you need to know when it comes to setting up a turtle tank from start to finish.

Keep in mind also that this article is meant for semi-aquatic and aquatic turtles and in no way it’s recommended to add a land turtle into your aquatic turtle tank.

The Basics of a Turtle Tank

The following are necessary considerations and requirements in a turtle tank setup:

1. Make Use of a Large and Solid Tank

When considering buying a turtle tank, the size of it it’s the most important.

People don’t really realize how big a turtle can get when they see them so small in the hatchling stage.

Keep in mind that a baby turtle grows quite fast and if you’re going to house him in a small tank you may have to buy another one soon if it outgrows that one.

Here you can see the difference between the 2 stages of hatchling and juvenile turtle.

You can use our turtle tank size calculator for a better understanding of what size do you actually need for your turtle.

Turtle Shell Length
1 in.
Turtle Tank Size
10 Gallons


Your turtle will need a tank that can hold up to 10 to 20 gallons (38 to 57 liters) of water for every 1 inch (2.5 cm) of a turtle

Ensure that the tank is deeper than it is wide so that your turtle can have enough room to flip itself upright if it gets turned upside down. 

With the measurement of the adult species of your turtle in mind, make the length of the tank thrice or four times the length of the turtle, and the width twice the turtle length. 

A full-grown turtle can reach 12 inches (30.48 cm).

The height of the tank should be two times the length of the turtle but to further make sure that the turtle can’t climb out, let the highest point of the tank by a full 1 foot above where the turtle can reach. You can also use a tank cover to avoid this issue.

To get the tank size that will accommodate all the turtles, size the tank according to one turtle and add half of that to the original size for each turtle. 

Plastic tub tank

Compared to the glass tanks, the tubs are much cheaper and affordable

They are also pliable made out of rubber/plastic so you can move it around more easily and you don’t have to worry about breaking it, relatively speaking, just be careful with them. 

The only issue we found with these tubs for the aquatic turtles at least is that you can’t see your pet horizontally, you can only see them from a top-down angle, which sometimes makes it hard to see your turtle.

It’s not as aesthetic as a turtle aquarium, but for sure it does its job for the turtle.

Glass tank

Unlike the plastic turtle tubs, the glass tanks are more visually pleasing for the eye to have especially if nicely decorated. 

They are also more accessible since you can find them in mostly all pet shops.

Glass tanks can be more prone to breaking since they are more fragile and easily scratched by the turtle claws.

2. Make Provision for a Lamp

When making provision for a lamp, bear in mind that your lighting could be mounted directly on the tank itself, or separately but directed towards the tank.

Let the light also shine on the basking portion of the tank to give the turtles proper lighting. 

Note that the light doesn’t have to be on for 24 hours. You could use a timer or switch to control the light on and off when necessary.

Turtles need 12 hours of light to simulate daylight, and 12 hours of darkness to simulate night time.

When choosing a lamp, keep in mind that turtles need full-spectrum light, so the lamp you use should adequately provide UVA and UVB rays.

UVA encourages behaviors and activity in turtles, while UVA stimulates the production of vitamin D3. It also helps your turtle develop a healthy shell. 

You can let in natural sunlight in your tank but avoid keeping it in the path of direct sunlight.

Place it near indirect sunlight or in a shade as direct sunlight can kill your turtle in its tank.

3. Use a Water Heater

The use of a tank water heater depends on the species of turtle you are getting.

If your turtle species prefer water at room temperature, you will have no need for this but if the species prefers a warm environment, you should get a submersible heater. 

Hide the heater behind a wall in the tank to prevent your aquatic friend from breaking it as it swims around.

4. Use a Good Filter

Turtles are a messy kind and they can get the water dirty very easily.

Changing the tank water daily will be a cumbersome task for you and it will make caring for your turtle more demanding than it should be.

So to maintain a healthy tank without stressing yourself, you need to get a filter.

Canister filters work best in keeping your tank clean.

Although they can be expensive, they do not clog up easily and work continuously to maintain a healthy tank.

5. Make Use of Tank Covers

Tank covers are not compulsory, but they provide added security to your turtle. 

When choosing a cover, go for one made of materials that do not melt easily or shatter, and that will not absorb or prevent the passage of UVA and UVB rays into the tank.

6. Create a Land Area in the Tank

Both aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles need a dry area in the tank.

The area of the dry part depends on the species as some turtles need a dry area of 50% of the total tank, while others need no more than 25% of the total tank.

This dry land is necessary as a basking area for your turtle and also to dry off.

You can easily acquire a dock from the store if you want, or make use of a floating rock or log.

Using a log or rock directly from your environment can pose a threat to your turtle as those are breeding sites for harmful organisms.

If you must use them, boil them properly to disinfect them before use.

As you provide a dry area, provide a ramp also so that your turtle can easily climb unto the dry area.

The ramp should also slope into the water but if it cannot serve as an entry to the dry land and exit from it, then you will need two separate ramps for each purpose.

7. Use Appropriate Decorations

Decorations are not a necessity for the survival of your pet, but they make the aquarium more homely and comfortable for your pet.

Do not add too many decorations that your turtle won’t have space to move around.

Choose plants that are edible and non-toxic to your pet because it will nibble on the plants.

8. Spread substrate at the bottom of the tank only if needed

A substrate in a turtle tank can only accumulate uneaten food and wastes, which can quickly dirty the water.

You can only add substrates if you plan in adding any live plants into the turtle tank.

On the other hand, if a bare-bottom tank is not aesthetically pleasing to you, you are free to decorate it, but just be prepared for more frequent cleaning.

9. Fill the Tank with Clean Water

It goes without saying that you have to fill the tank with clean water at all times.

Most turtles are freshwater creatures and so are comfortable with water from the tap.

Most turtles need at least 4 to 6 inches of water, but you have to make sure that the water depth is at least three-quarter the turtle length.

Commonly Asked Questions About Turtle Tank Setup

How Big Of A Tank Do You Need For A Turtle?

When choosing a tank size, it is better to have an idea of the average size an adult of your turtle’s species can grow. Add 10 gallons for every inch of its length.

Do Turtle Tanks Need To Be Cycled?

Yes, you need to establish a working nitrogen cycle in your tank. This cycle will help in the breakdown of harmful ammonia which turtles produce a lot into the less harmful nitrate.

What Kind Of Filter Should I Use For My Turtle Tank?

Since turtles are messy, it is better to use a powerful filter if you want to maintain a clean tank. Canister filters are very powerful and are good for use with turtle tanks.

Can Turtles Live In Tap Water?

In most cases, it is fine to make use of tap water for your turtle. If you are not sure if your water supply process, you should use a water conditioner.

How often should I clean my turtle tank filter?

You should clean your turtle tank filter at least once a week due to its duty in the tank. Cleaning it prevents clogging and reduces the ammonia or nitrite level in the water. Clean the whole tank in two to three weeks.

It’s Your Turn

There you have it, all you need to know about setting up a turtle tank from scratch till finish.

It is a beautiful thing keeping a turtle as a pet, but in the wrong environment, your turtle will suffer and may eventually die.

Following these directions will help you provide a conducive and safe place for your pet to live.

Thankfully there is a lot of equipment on the market to help you easily set up a turtle tank, all you have to do is choose the best of each.

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!