Cool, Cheap Turtle Tank Ideas – Setup Guide & Affordable Habitats

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You might associate aquariums with fish or aquatic invertebrates, but that’s not all you can keep in your tank. Turtles are another fun aquarium pet, and in many respects, it’s easier to set up turtle aquariums and maintain them than it is to keep a fish tank. Consider these exciting turtle tank designs for your next DIY project!

Cool Turtle Tank Ideas: 11 Options for Your Turtle Habitat

Looking for some ideas to help inspire the design of your next turtle aquarium or terrarium? These turtle tanks cover a wide range of habitats, and there’s an affordable and attractive option no matter what size turtle tank you’d like to keep!

1. Basic Turtle Starter Tub

Turtle Tank Aquarium,Reptile Habitat,Turtle Habitat Terrapin Lake Reptile Aquarium Tank with Platform Plants for Crayfish Crab (Black)

A simple way to start your turtle-keeping hobby is with a large plastic tub like this one. With 5 different areas, your turtle can swim, bask in the lamp, grab a quick bite to eat or even hibernate, all in the same preformed tub. This is also a good option for a turtle hospital or quarantine tank.

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2. Double Turtle Tank

Double Turtle Tank
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If you go with a large 40-gallon turtle tank set-up you could potentially divide it in half and maintain two turtles safely. This way, your sliders won’t accidentally hurt each other and each have room to swim and their own basking ramp and dock. An external canister filter is a great way to keep a tank like this clean. Notice the lack of substrate and how clean the water looks!

3. Planted Turtle Aquarium

Planted Turtle Aquarium
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When keeping aquatic turtles, it’s fun to plant and even aquascape your aquarium to create a really beautiful and functional home. The pile of rocks makes for an attractive and natural basking dock and the floating plants bring some shade to the water. I really like how the plants grow out of the water, so the aquarium resembles an outdoor pond.

4. Aquatic Turtle Starter Kit

Tetra Aquatic Turtle Deluxe Kit 20 Gallons, aquarium With Filter And Heating Lamps

If you’re not ready to invest the time and money into a custom or DIY tank then you might consider buying a starter turtle kit. Get everything you need in one package, including a 20-gallon turtle tank set-up with a plastic basking dock, water filter, dome heat lamp and UVB light. You might not even need to add a water heater.

5. DIY Turtle Tank

Turtle tank
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You can get creative and use colorful aquatic substrate and other decorations to design a pond and basking dock area inside your aquarium. DIY set-ups like these are not hard to build and can be very attractive. A simple arrangement like this doesn’t even require attaching the hardscape to your tank, since the wooden wall holds the basking dock in place. Don’t be afraid to add some toys as well.

6. Creative Themed Turtle Aquarium

Creative Themed Turtle Aquarium
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You can have fun with your turtle tank and design it around a theme, like this Pirate Turtle Aquarium! You can see the floating basking dock and heat lamp off to the right side, and how the turtle is able to swim under the platform for extra room. Most likely, those beautiful goldfish swimming around the themed decorations are intended as a meal for the turtle rather than as pets.

7. Simple Turtle Terrarium

turtle with shell in aquarium or cage with log and food

A simple option is to set-up a basic turtle terrarium using coco husk as substrate with a few pre-made bowls and hiding spots like the wooden cave. Not pictured but included would be a plastic pool of water off to the right side with a basic ramp so your turtle can take a swim. This is a good option for a starter or baby turtle habitat.

8. DIY Turtle Aquarium With Underwater Tunnel

Aquatic Turtle Tank With Underwater Tunnel
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If you’re an especially crafty kind of DIY’er, you could use foam to sculpt an underwater tunnel or cave feature that also doubles as a ramp and basking dock. This is some high-level craftsmanship, and the upper part of the ramp has been airbrushed to look like real rock. Notice the underwater UVB light and the bare-bottomed tank. This is an easy design to keep clean!

9. Large Turtle Aquarium

Large Turtle Aquarium

You can often keep multiple turtles in the same tank as long as they have plenty of room, and this large turtle aquarium is an excellent design for two or more. See how the basking dock stands in the middle of the tank so it’s easy to access? I also really like the dual filtration system with intakes on both ends of the tank.

10. Basic Turtle Aquarium

The old turtle tank
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You don’t have to get fancy with your turtle aquarium set-up. This large bare bottom tank uses a simple table as a basking dock and has a bubble wand in the water to increase oxygenation and water circulation. You can see how they used hardware cloth to make their own tank cover to suspend the heat lamp and UVB fixture.

11. Turtle Tank with Floating Basking Area

Turtle Tank with Floating Basking Area

This is a great view of a manufactured floating basking dock that’s angled to fit in the corner of a large aquarium. The adjustable ramp makes it easy for the turtle to climb out of the water, and the floating dock allows more space for swimming and decorations underneath. You can tell that’s one happy turtle enjoying some warmth and rays!

Basic Features of Turtle Tank Set-Ups

The small turtle floats in an aquarium.

Folks often get turtles and tortoises confused or think they have similar care requirements, but in truth, they are very different creatures. Tortoises are land animals, while turtles live in the water. Keeping a pet turtle requires maintaining an aquarium or pond where they can swim and feed.

There are many popular breeds of pet turtle, but they all fall into one of two categories:

  • Semi-aquatic turtles like the red-eared slider, painted, mud, musk and map turtles divide their time between swimming in the water and basking on their dock under the heating lamp.
  • Aquatic turtles like the soft shells and matamata spend most of their time in the water and may only poke their heads out underneath their basking light.

Depending on the breed you choose, you may need a terrarium or pond with both water and land areas, or you may be able to go entirely aquatic and design your own turtle aquarium.

Equipment Needed for Turtle Tanks

What kind of equipment do you need to set up your turtle tank? Obviously, the ideal size of your habitat will depend on the age and species of turtle you choose and how many you plan on keeping together. To set up your turtle terrarium or aquarium, you’ll need the following equipment:

Water Filter and Heater

Tetra Whisper EX Aquarium Power Filter

Turtles need very clean water to stay healthy and also need their water kept at a warm, consistent temperature, although the precise temp will depend on the species you go with.

Heat Lamps and Lighting

Unless you’re keeping your turtle in an outdoor pond where they get exposed to natural sunlight, you’ll need to add a heat lamp and UVB light to your turtle set-up.

Basking Dock

Semi-aquatic species of turtle need basking docks or platforms where they can rest above the waterline. For fully aquatic turtles, a submerged pile of rocks under the heat lamp usually works as a resting and basking platform.

  • You can build a floating dock, or buy a tank topper with ramp.
    • Penn Plax Reptology Tank Topper Basking Dock

Tank Substrate

How Many Bags of Substrate is Needed? - Close up shot of hands scooping gravel.

You don’t have to use substrate on the bottom of your turtle tank, and many experienced turtle keepers go with bare-bottomed tanks to improve filter performance and make maintenance easy. You can also opt for an aquarium substrate or a product designed for live plants for a planted turtle aquarium.

  • An attractive option are large river rocks or pebbles, or even smooth glass chips if you prefer that appearance
    • Imagitarium Stripped Turtle Rocks

How to Set Up a Turtle Terrarium or Aquarium

Once you’ve picked up your equipment, you’re ready to start putting your turtle tank together! This can be as simple or extensive a process as you’d like. Many folks start with a simple baby turtle kit and then design a turtle tank customized with the features they want later.

Here’s the basic instructions for setting up a turtle habitat:

Fill the Tank with Substrate

Rinse your tank and substrate, and remove any labels from your tank. Fill the bottom of your tank with your chosen substrate (unless you’re opting for a bare tank bottom).

Create Basking Area and Fill with Water

Create the basking area by setting up your floating platform, tank topper or a pile of rocks in your turtle tank. Arrange the ramps so your turtle can move to each level. Double-check that your heat lamp and UVB lights fit above your turtle’s basking area and that the arrangement you’ve just constructed works.

Aquaterrarium, UV sterilizer

Fill your tank with water, either to the base of the basking platform or all the way up for an aquatic turtle tank. Use a good water conditioner to remove chlorine and other chemicals from your water.

Set Up Equipment and Decorations

Add your aquarium heater, filtration system and any other decorations except for live plants. Set your heater’s temperature and turn it on. Start your filter and allow it to cycle for a few days before adding any animals to the set-up (cycle longer if you plan to add fish as well).

Turn on Heating and Lights, and Add Live Plants

Once your tank’s conditions are stable, turn on your lights and add any live plants to your aquarium. Monitor your water and basking dock temperatures and make any final adjustments. Once everything is ready, you can add your turtle to your new tank!


There’s a lot of options when you’re setting up a turtle habitat, and the ideal tank for your turtle will depend on whether it’s a semi-aquatic or fully aquatic breed. From there, you can opt for an easy turtle starter kit or design your own extensive DIY turtle tank with custom features like caves and tunnels.

We’d love to hear about your turtle tank in the comments, or join us online and share pictures of your turtle and their set-up!

Jen has more than 30 years experience as a biologist, aquarist, and fishkeeper. She is an expert in setting up new tanks and maintaining naturally-planted freshwater habitats, and has experience raising a wide variety of aquatic species.

3 thoughts on “Cool, Cheap Turtle Tank Ideas – Setup Guide & Affordable Habitats”

  1. I am looking for a filter system for my Aquatic turtle in a 20 gallon tank now, planning to go larger or at least mount the docking station on top. Which of the filtration systems will keep the water clean so that I can just change the filter and not the water every week or two?

    • Hi there Akua, and thanks for asking this question! It’s hard to recommend a specific type of filtration system without knowing all the details of your set-up and how much room you have for equipment, but I can definitely pass on some advice to help you find the right type for your needs.

      Since aquatic turtles produce a lot of solid and liquid waste, I usually recommend a canister filter for their aquariums, rather than a cheaper internal filter or HOB (which aren’t as effective). These powerful filters sit beside or below your aquarium, and you can adjust the intake and outtake tubes to suit your tank’s set-up. As the water is filtered through the canister’s padding and media, physical debris gets trapped and the toxins from their waste are chemically neutralized.

      If you opt for a canister system, you’ll easily be able to access the filter without having to put your hands inside the tank. You can wash the padding to clear the chunky debris each week and replace the media a couple of times a month or as needed. Your choice of filter media will be the key to how long you’ll be able to wait between water changes, though. If you use media that can absorb or neutralize ammonia, nitrite AND nitrate, then you’ll probably be able to get two weeks between changes.

      But if you’re only using carbon or a zeolite-based product in your filter (often sold as ammonia chips), you may still need weekly changes to keep the nitrate levels controlled. That’s a mistake a friend of mine made, and his turtle ended up getting nitrate poisoning because he didn’t realize his filter media wasn’t able to neutralize it. So my advice is to get a canister filter with baskets that you can custom-fill for your turtle tank, and go with media that targets ammonia, nitrite and nitrate. I hope this answers your question!

  2. Are lids needed for the aquariums? I am getting a baby map turtle and am thinking of getting something like the basic starter tub.


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