Box Turtle Setup
Box turtle setups are more terrestrial than water based with the exception of one species. They can be housed indoors or outdoors.
Although box turtles (Terrapene) are pond turtles, box turtles need a terrestrial setup.
They can be housed outdoors or indoors depending on preference. With that being said, these turtles are best housed outdoors. Luckily, these delightful turtles don’t need a lot of space to thrive.
A 16 sq ft outdoor enclosure is big enough for box turtles. When setting up an enclosure for a box turtle, think of it as a tortoise and build the enclosure as such.
One mistake many box turtle owners do is to keep them in an aquatic environment as they would with other turtles.
Table of Contents
Choosing/Building the turtle enclosure
Box turtles reach adult lengths of 4 to 8 inches. This is similar in length to other small tortoises such as the Kleinmann’s tortoise. As such,, an enclosure similar to what you will build a Kleinmann’s tortoise is adequate. Unlike the Kleinmann’s tortoise, the common box turtle requires a more humid environment.
A box turtle can be housed in a tortoise table, a glass/wooden terrarium, or in a fenced pen. If you have the space, I recommend that you house the box turtle outdoors.
Setting Up An Indoor enclosure
Tortoise tables are shallow, rectangular open-top wooden boxes. Not only do they ensure the turtle gets the needed amount of sunlight but they are also airy.
Since they are wooden and have no glass component they can be moved outside to receive direct sunlight which is the best source of uv light.
As you may already know, the bigger the table, the better. A bigger table gives you more to work with. Many tortoise tables come with a dark hiding spot.
You can also acquire a commercially produced reptile cave for the enclosure. The enclosure should have a width and length of 2x2ft. The walls should be at least 1.5 ft high.
You can also build the turtle table yourself, just follow the measurements given in the previous paragraph. Build the tortoise table out of untreated wood and use non-toxic paint or water sealant for the surface.
You can also use an opaque plastic container. These may not be as elegant as a glass terrarium or aquarium but they work just as well.
Glass aquarium and terrarium can also be used, although this isn’t the best as the turtle may think it can go through the glass. The exposed nature also stresses the turtle.
Setting Up An Outdoor Enclosure
An outdoor enclosure allows the turtle a lot of exposure to the sun. The enclosure should be at least 16 sq ft in size and the walls should be at least about 2 ft tall. An 8×8 ft enclosure is even better.
The enclosure walls should be about a foot underground to prevent the turtle from burrowing out. To prevent the turtles from climbing out the walls can have an overhand. Decorate the enclosure with rocks, hiding spots, and plants.
Below is a nice DIY video on creating an outdoor box turtle enclosure. They didn’t add a cover on it, but it will give you a good idea of what you can do.
Escape-proofing the enclosure
Both indoor and outdoor enclosures should be escape-proof. The sides of the enclosure walls need to be vertical so the turtle cannot climb up.
You can install hinged and latched covers atop the enclosure, this not only prevents the turtle from escaping, it also protects against predators such as cats, dogs, and raccoons. You can also use hardware cloth as a cover.
Do not place objects in the corner or along the sides of the enclosure as it will encourage the turtle to climb out.
Box turtles need full-spectrum light to be healthy. Uvb light helps the turtle synthesize vitamin D which is needed for calcium absorption. Calcium is used to build strong and healthy bones and shells.
Direct sunlight is best.
Outdoor turtles get this in abundance. Even turtle tables can be placed in parts of the house where there is direct access to sunlight. However, never place a glass terrarium or aquarium in the path of direct sunlight unless you want to kill the turtle.
For turtles housed indoors with no access to the sun, provide UVB light. Remember that these bulbs need to be changed every 6 months.
You need light fixtures to hold the bulbs. I recommend the Fluker’s Mini Sun Dome. it can be placed on the cover of the tortoise table or mounted with a stand. You can also go with a terrarium hood with a T5 bulb as an alternative option depending on the setup you choose.
When it comes to the bulbs and lamps, I recommend Reptisun lights. They are among the most widely used reptile UVB lights. Similarly, you can get a UVB mercury vapor bulb. Both work well.
The lights need to be on for just 10 to 12 hours each day and off for the next 10 to 12 hours. This ensures that the turtle’s circadian rhythm is maintained. If you cannot turn the lights on and off on time, plug the lights into a timer.
As cold-blooded animals, turtles need outside heat to warm themselves up. Turtles outside rely on the sun for warmth.
However, for indoor turtles, you need to provide the external heat source for them to bask in. The entire enclosure doesn’t be heated, only about a third of the enclosure.
The other side of the enclosure needs to remain cool so the turtle can adjust its body temperature by moving between the cool and warm sides of the enclosure.
Also, you need to hook up the heat lamp to a timer and a thermostat to ensure that the lamp goes off at night (for 12 to 14 hours), and that the temperature of the warm end doesn’t exceed 85 F. Ideally, the warm end should have a temperature of 80 to 85 F.
Measure the temperature of the warm end of the enclosure using a thermometer.
Place the thermometer under the heat source where the turtle basks. The lamp shouldn’t overheat any part or wall of the enclosure.
No part of the enclosure should be hot to touch. The Exo Terra Thermometer, is a good analog thermometer that keeps accurate temperatures, and the Hagen Exo Terra ON/Off Thermostat can be used to regulate the temperature.
You can also use a laser thermometer to do spot checks in the enclosure.
The humidity level needs to be just right for the box turtle to thrive. Vox turtles prefer humid environments.
The humidity level needs to be 60 to 80 percent. As long as the right substrate is used, and the enclosure is misted regularly (once a day), you can achieve this.
If you notice that your turtle borrows constantly, then you need to increase the humidity of the enclosure as they are searching for it underground like they would do if they were in the wild.
Substrate or bedding is the material that forms the foundation of the enclosure. It holds moisture and allows the turtle to burrow. There are several excellent substrate materials on the market.
When it comes to the substrate for a box turtle setup, go for something that retains moisture very well. A mix of peat-based potting soil (natural) and orchid bark is an excellent choice.
Other materials you can use include sphagnum moss orchid bark alone, cypress mulch, coco coir, and aspen.
The potting mix used should not contain perlite fertilizer, pesticides or any additives. Aquarium sand and gravel holds too much water. This can cause shell rot.
I recommend the Zoo Med Eco Earth Coconut Fiber Substrate.
Plants and Accessories for the Outdoor Enclosure
Accessories and objects such as hollow logs, smooth rocks, and plants add to the appeal of the enclosure. However, choosing the right plants can be difficult. Whole turtles and tortoises seem to know which plants to eat and which ones to avoid, it is always best to provide edible plants only.
The following plants are excellent for outdoor enclosures
- Aloe (Aloe species)
- Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon)
- Edible fig (Ficus carica), geranium (pelargonium species)
- Grapes (Vitis vinifera and v. labrusca)
- Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis)
- Jade plant (Crassula argentea)
- Kale (Brassica oleracea)
- Mulberry (Morus alba and M. nigra)
- Ornamental strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis)
- Marguerite daisy (Chrysanthemum frutescens)
- Pineapple guava (feijoa sellowiana)
- Spineless prickly pear cactus (Opuntia species)
- Yucca (Yucca species)
It is important to pick and place any accessories carefully. You don’t want to harm the turtle.
Consider the following when choosing any item for the tortoise enclosure:
- Any plant placed in the turtle’s pen should be edible and nontoxic.
- Make sure there are no tiny objects such as stones that the turtle can swallow.
- Sharp edges can cause cuts and bruises, which can easily get infected. To reduce the chance of an injury, remove any object that can harm the turtle. This includes ragged rocks.
- Sterilize soil and rocks used for the enclosure.
Sterilized store-bought substrate and decorations are generally free of harmful microorganisms. However, it is a good idea to boil rocks picked from your yard before placing it in the turtle’s enclosure.
To prevent turtles from getting trapped under a rock when burrowing, place the rock in the enclosure before pouring the substrate around it. This way the rock sits on the bottom of the tortoise table and not on the bedding
Some accessories to place in the table include climbing obstacles such as rocks and logs, shelters such as a hollow log, a clayey pot, and a commercial hiding area, and a shallow water bowl large enough for the turtle to soak in.
There should be a hide on both the warm and cool sides of the enclosure. A terra-cotta pot can be turned onto its side and used as a hide. Your imagination is the limit.
Before you acquire a box turtle (Terrapene spp.), make sure it has an enclosure to come home to. The box turtle setup can either be outdoors or indoors.
Outdoor enclosures are usually more expensive to set up and maintain but they are generally the best. When setting up an indoor enclosure you can use a tortoise table, a terrarium, and even a plastic container.
You need to provide the turtle with an adequate amount of sunlight, appropriate basking temperatures, and the right humidity range. As time goes on, maintaining optimal conditions becomes easy to do.
For a deeper dive into creating a setup for your box turtle check out our guide on creating an outdoor tortoise enclosure.