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Step By Step Turtle Tank Setup Guide

Turtle tank setup is one of the most demanding aspects in caring for your semi aquatic and aquatic pet turtle. With the right information, setting up a turtle tank is simple and straightforward.

These are several factors to consider when creating the perfect habitat for your reptile friend and these include tank size, filter, lighting, heating, water chemistry, and decoration/accessories.

With these considered, the turtle tank setup process is not difficult. It’s also important to remember that not all turtles need an aquatic setup (such as an aquarium).

Box turtles, for instance, are generally terrestrial creatures and as such require a terrarium. Check out our box turtle setup guide for more.

Water Turtle Housing

Choosing The Tank

Tetra Glass Aquarium 55 Gallons, Rectangular Fish Tank (NV52018)

The first thing to consider is the tank. Of course, alternatively, you can build a koi pond for the turtle but this is very expensive. If you want to create an outdoor pond for your turtle, it is best to consult with experts. You can expect to pay at least $1000 for an outdoor garden pond.

In this article, we will concentrate on an indoor enclosure. While you can house turtles in 20-GAL tanks, I recommend a tank with at least a capacity of about 40 gallons.

As a rule of thumb, for every inch of turtle, provide about 10 to 15 gallons of water. As such, for a 4-inch turtle, you should acquire a 40-gallon tank.

Turtle Tank Size Chart

To make it a little easier for you here is a turtle tank size broken down by different species of turtles.

TurtleAdult lengthTank Size
Musk & mud turtle3 to 5 Inches25 to 50 Gallons
Painted turtle4 to 10 inches40 to 100 gallons
Red eared slider turtle6 – 12 inches50 to 100 gallons
Map turtle4 to 10 inches40 to 100 gallons
Wood turtles7 to 8.25 inches75 to 100 gallons
River cooter8 to 11 inches75 to 100 gallons
Diamondback terrapin5 – 7 inches50 to 75 gallons

Young turtles can thrive in aquariums with a capacity of 20 gallons, however, as they grow into adults, they will need a larger tank.

Here are some rules to follow. These will help you determine the appropriate tank size for your turtle.

  • If you decide to use a transparent glass tank, ensure it is an aquarium. Don’t use reptile tanks made for terrestrial reptiles. These tanks have thin glasses that can break under the pressure the water exerts on it.
  • The side panels of the turtle tank need to be at least 10 mm (0.4 inches) thick.
  • If your turtle is a hatchling or juvenile, check the average adult size for the species and use that measurement when acquiring a tank for the turtle.
  • For every additional turtle, size the tank according to the first turtle and add half the original tank capacity. For instance, house two false map turtles (with lengths of 5 inches) in a 75-gallon tank.
  • The depth of the tank needs to be more than the width. This ensures that the turtle has enough room to flip itself over if it accidentally turns upside-down. You don’t want your turtle to drown because it got stuck on its back.

There are many different tanks on the market, however, my favorite starter tank is the Tetra Aquarium. This 55-gallon aquarium is perfect for most pet turtles.

When setting up the tank, you should first make sure you have a space for your tank setup.

For example, the Tetra Aquarium, you need at least 50 inches of wall space.

Do not place the tank in direct sunlight.

The tank must be placed out of the way of direct sunlight. This is because direct sunlight can quickly increase the temperature within the tank to dangerous levels.

Use an aquarium stand that is made for the aquarium. The stand needs to be sturdy and strong.


Penn-Plax Cascade All-in-One Aquarium Canister Filter – for Tanks Up to 100 Gallons (265 GPH) – Cascade 1000

As with any aquarium, filters are important as they keep the water clean, free of waste, and circulating.

Of course, turtles need a more powerful filter as they produce a lot of waste, more waste than fish.

Without a good filter, you will need to change the water daily if you don’t want the turtle to fall ill.

When choosing a filter for a turtle tank, it has to be marked for a tank 2 or 3 times larger than the turtle tank. As explained already, turtles produce more waste than fish, and as such their tanks need a more powerful filter.

If the turtle’s tank is 55 gallons, then choose a filter marked for a 100-gallon aquarium.

There are different types of filters you can get for the turtle tank. These include canister filters, hang on back filters, and submersible filters.

Canister filters, also known as external filters, are the best. They have higher gallons-per-hour rates and filter the water in the tank much better.

Submersible filters should be used only for small tanks, tanks designed for juveniles and hatchlings. 

I recommend the Penn Plax Cascade 1000 Canister Filter. This powerful filter has 3 media baskets, works at 265 GPH, and is marked for aquariums with capacities of up to 100 gallons. This canister filter is perfect for a 55-gallon tank.

The Marineland Penguin Power Filter is another powerful filter to consider. This HOB (hang-on-back)  has a flow rate of 350 GPH. it works hard and keeps the water clean with its mechanical, chemical, and biological aquarium filtration. If you must get a HOB filter then, this is the best.

If you must go with a submersible filter then the Marineland Magnum Polishing Internal Canister Filter is my pick. This may be a submersible filter but it’s also a canister filter.

It has a filtration rate of 290 gallons of water an hour. As with the other two filters mentioned this is a 3-stage filter (featuring mechanical, chemical, and biological filtration).


Indoor Turtle Tank

Lighting is essential to the survival of the turtle because turtles need full-spectrum light to properly synthesize vitamin D3 which is needed for shell and bone formation.

For turtles housed within an aquarium, sunlight is not a viable UV light source. UVA/UVB lamps are necessary.

Some aquariums may come with lamp fixtures already installed. Otherwise, you need to acquire and install the fixture yourself.

There are countless lamp fixtures on the market. When getting a lamp fixture, ensure you get one that works with the amount of wattage you plan on passing through it. The REPTI ZOO 8.5 Inch Reptile Lamp Fixture and the Fluker’s 27004 Mini Sun Dome are two great choices.

There are many light bulbs out there designed for reptiles such as turtles, but my favorites are the ReptiSun bulbs.

These produce all the needed UV light. They are effective and efficient. I recommend Zoo Med Reptisun 10.0 Uvb Mini Compact Fluorescent.

The lights need to be on for 10 to 14 hours each day, followed by 10 to 14 hours of darkness. You can have the light hooked up to a timer.

Place the tank near indirect sunlight or in the shade. Never place the tank in direct sunlight.


Different turtles require different temperatures to be comfortable. Regardless of the turtle, it is best to provide a heat lamp over the turtle’s basking spot.

Even musk and mud turtles should have basking platforms although these prefer to spend over 90 percent of their time in water.

Ceramic heat lamps, such as the Zacro Reptile Heat Lamp, are preferable as they can be on throughout the entire day (although I don’t recommend this unless it is absolutely necessary).

Since ceramic heat lamps don’t produce light, they can be turned down without affecting light output.

Just like UVB bulbs, ceramic heat lamps also need lamp fixtures. I recommend the Fluker’s Repta-Clamp Lamp Ceramic with Dimmable Switch.

A submersible heater is a good idea if only your turtle needs it. Many turtles prefer the water temperature to be in the 70s. If your turtle needs a submersible heater, then the Orlushy Submersible Aquarium Heater is a good option.

Basking platform

Penn-Plax Reptology Floating Turtle Pier and Basking Platform – Decorative, Functional, and Naturally Inspired – Large Size (Model Number: REP603)

All freshwater turtles bask every now and then. Turtles such as cooters, map turtles, sliders, painted turtles are serial baskets these turtles spend the better part of their day basking.

Basking allows the turtle to dry off as well as regulate their body temperature. Not only does basking allow the turtle to avoid infections, but it also keeps them warm and ensure they get the needed UVB rays.

There are several basking platforms on the market. Some of the best basking platforms include the Penn Plax Reptology Floating Turtle Pier and the Penn-Plax turtle topper.


I recommend that you use a substrate only when you need to. Substrates make the tank more difficult to clean. It can also hold bits of food that the turtle cannot get to. This food can decompose and create an unsanitary environment.

A substrate is only needed if you have live plants in the aquarium, these live plants give the turtle a safe place to hide, they also add to the aesthetics of the tank.

If you have to have bedding in the tank, these are the types I recommend.


Pebbles and gravels provide a clean and nice appearance. River pebbles come in many different colors, shapes, and colors. If you must, ensure that the gravel/pebble is at least ½ inch (15 mm) in diameter. The bigger the better as turtles won’t try to ingest large pebbles.

Fluorite gravel.

These porous clay gravel are great for any plants you may have in the aquarium. As with pebbles, go with large fluorite.


Many turtle enthusiasts feel sand isn’t the best as it is difficult to clean. However, it’s a popular choice. Turtles also enjoy digging in it.


Accessories such as plants and rocks can be used to give the enclosure a more natural appearance, while hiding spots and caves ensure that the turtle feels comfortable.


Plants and other decorations are not important to the survival of the turtle. However, they do give the tank a nice appearance.

Logs, smooth rocks, and caves provide hiding spots for the turtle. Just ensure that the turtle has a lot of empty space to swim and bask in.

Here are things to consider when choosing accessories for the tank

  • Remember that it’s important that plants in the enclosure, both terrestrial and aquatic, are non-toxic to turtles as they will certainly attempt to eat them.
  • Also, ensure that the decorations and accessories don’t have sharp edges as these can injure the turtle.
  • Any accessory obtained from nature such as rocks from your backyard needs to be sterilized. Do this by placing the accessory in boiling water. This should kill any germ that can contaminate the aquarium.
  • All decorations must have a diameter of more than 1 inch. This stops turtles from trying to swallow the decoration.
  • Do not place enclosure-type decorations underwater as the turtle can get stuck in them. Turtles unlike fish cannot swim underwater. Place caves and hiding spots on the dry part of the enclosure.

Turtle Tank Video Setup


Setting up your turtle’s tank is not a difficult task. It may be time-consuming and a little costly but most of the purchases are one-time only. The components you need to purchase are easy to find and install.

First of all, getting the right tank with the right capacity is essential. I recommend a minimum tank size for about 40 gallons.

The next most important component is the basking area and basking lamp which warms up the entire enclosure.

UVB lights are also needed. So are adequately sized filters. Other components such as decorations, plants, and substrates may not be as important, but they add to the decor of the tank.

Let us know if you found this helpful below in the comments below!

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Friday 24th of June 2022

Like every other article, this one only discusses the starter tank setup, and not the 100 gallon tank every owner will soon need—which is not easily available—fish tanks are not deep enough from front to back. Lots of great recommendations in this article for initial tank set up. Really wish it would have followed through with info for tank recommendations for an adult aquatic turtle.

Brock Yates

Saturday 25th of June 2022

Thanks Patti for taking the time to leave that comment. I will look to have a section added for larger setups of 100+ gallons to make the guide more thorough. In the meantime we do have an article about creating an indoor pond type setup which doesn't focus on using fish tanks. Have a look at that, don't hesitate to leave a comment if you think it can be better. We are always looking for ways to make the site a better resource for everyone.