The Best Substrate for Box Turtles Main Picture

What are the best box turtle beddings? In this short article, I will show you what I consider to be the best substrate for box turtles.

In my experience, the 2 biggest mistakes people make when it comes to caring for their turtles are:

  • Not giving an aquatic species enough water.
  • Not using the right box turtle bedding material.

And I’ll be the first to admit that I made both of these mistakes when I received my first aquatic and first box turtle.

This is exactly why I wrote this article.

So let’s get straight to it.

Before we go into all the different turtle substrates, I first need to make a very brief, but important point here.

How Much Space Do Box Turtles Need?

Just because box turtles don’t need even 1% of the water that aquatic turtles do, doesn’t mean that they can be put into tiny aquariums.

The American Animal Hospital Association recommends a minimum aquarium size of 20-gallons for a box turtle. The thing is, box turtles aren’t going to be swimming in a lot of deep water, so using gallons as a metric isn’t entirely useful.

I would strongly recommend that you follow this rule of thumb for the size of your indoor box turtle habitat:

  • 3 feet (36 inches) long / ~91 centimeters.
  • 1 foot (12 inches) wide / ~30 centimeters.

Now, I know a lot of people aren’t able to get an aquarium that is that big, but I would recommend that you get as close as you can to that size. This way, your box turtle will have plenty of room and space to thrive.

Outdoor enclosures are usually even better for box turtles. For these, I strongly support the 4 feet by 4 feet (~122 centimeters) recommendation guideline from Austin’s Turtle Page.

There’s another reason why I wanted to mention the enclosure size. That being, the larger your enclosure, the easier you are able to put enough box turtle substrate inside.

I’ll explain.

What Does A Box Turtle Habitat Look Like?

Think about where most box turtles live.

All over the world, they tend to live in forested areas with just a bit of light hitting the ground.

Being so low to the ground, box turtles tend to thrive in environments with higher humidity and lower light.

That’s what you want to replicate with your indoor box turtle enclosure. You can do this by adding or having the following:

  • As much space for moving around as possible.
  • An area to bask under the light.
  • Darker spots underneath logs and plants.
  • A shallow water bowl or dish for drinking and soaking.
  • A good box turtle substrate.

Having a good box turtle bedding is crucial. If you get the wrong one, it can negatively affect your turtle’s health. Some beddings can even eventually kill your box turtle!

The Best Substrate for Box Turtles

The best substrates for box turtles are:

Why coconut fiber?

Coconut fiber is usually sold as either a compact brick or already loosened. For the brick, you simply take it, put it into a large bucket, add a bit of warm water and it will expand really fast into looser, moist bedding.

It’s non-toxic, all-organic, and very inexpensive. It’s also PERFECT to use as a base box turtle bedding material.

Eco-Earth, organic soil and sphagnum moss is what I use for my box turtle.

Now, that being said. I would not recommend using Eco-Earth as your sole box turtle bedding for every habitat. It’s quite loose and if you need something more compact, get soil or clay.

It will be very difficult for your box turtle to burrow into as by itself it doesn’t hold its shape very well. So, your turtle will just end up pushing it to one side of your enclosure.

Instead, what I would recommend is to mix it with soil, preferably very moist, clumpy soil. Mix it with at least a 50-50 mix and it will then hold up much better. Because coconut fiber also retains moisture well, it should help to keep your enclosure’s humidity high if you mist it daily.

I definitely recommend adding something like sphagnum moss as a topping to whatever substrate you choose. It locks in moisture and really will make your environment pop.

How Much Substrate Do I Need For A 55-Gallon Tank?

Up at the beginning of this article, I talked about how the bigger your aquarium or habitat, the better.

Here’s why:

  • Try to shoot for at least 3-4 inches of substrate depth in at least some parts of your enclosure.

The reason for this is:

  • Box turtles need to burrow, for both mental and physical health.

Now, I will warn you, after you decompress the coconut fiber and lay it down in your habitat, your box turtle is going to get it everywhere! It will look very messy and dirty. Your box turtle will be covered in it pretty quickly.

This is totally normal. It will take a while to kind of compress back in again and be less dirty.

I would also recommend doing something like separating your water bowl from the coconut fiber by a row of tiles or even medium-sized smooth stones. This way, when your box turtle goes to your water dish, it will track a lot of the substrate over the stones or tile and keep your water dish cleaner.

If compressed coconut fiber isn’t your thing for one reason or another (although I really do love it), you’ve still got plenty of other options.

Other Box Turtle Substrate Choices

A good box turtle bedding needs to:

  • Retain humidity.
  • Be able to be burrowed into.
  • By healthy and non-toxic to your box turtle.
  • Not cause your box turtle’s skin to dry out.

Keeping the humidity up is going to be rather important. It’s one of the biggest mistakes box turtle owners make.

Low humidity can, for most box turtle species, cause things such as skin cracking and eye problems.

Eastern box turtles and 3-Toed box turtles, for instance, two very popular box turtle species in North America, require humidity from 60-80% for optimum health.

Here is a shortlist of other beddings and substrates that work well with most box turtle species:

  • Sphagnum moss
  • Cypress mulch
  • Regular soil
  • Peat moss
  • Orchid bark
  • Leaf litter or leaf mulch
  • Hay (be careful with this as this can scratch your turtle)
  • Wood chips or shavings (be very careful here and avoid pine or cedar)
  • Organic potting soil*

You’ll need to be very careful with the potting soil, however, and make sure that it is free of:

  • Vermiculite
  • Perlite
  • Any added dyes or chemicals

If you’ve ever been to the Home Depot or one of those outdoor garden stores, you’ve probably seen those big bags of soil with what looks like tiny white balls inside them. Avoid those. They contain extra additives that can harm your box turtle.

Go 100%, total-organic or not at all. 

6 Great Excellent Substrates for Box Turtles

Good Box Turtle Bedding Combinations

Here are a few combinations that I would recommend of the above beddings:

  • Coconut fiber mixed with peat moss.
  • Coconut fiber mixed with dirt or organic potting soil.
  • Organic soil, sphagnum moss and cypress mulch (this is a combination recommended for Eastern box turtles from Austin’s Turtle Page).
  • Coconut fiber mixed with sphagnum moss.

Sphagnum moss is an excellent addition to your base box turtle substrate.

This is because sphagnum moss does a really good job of holding moisture AND heat. Most box turtles absolutely love to burrow into it.

A morning daily mist of water to a coconut fiber + sphagnum moss mixture is an awesome combo. The sphagnum moss will hold the moisture from the mist and release it throughout the rest of the day. It will also keep the bedding warm and humid.

Whatever the above combination of substrate you choose, make sure you lay down at least 3 or 4 inches.

Even more, is better.

Box Turtle Substrates To Avoid

A good box turtle bedding is soft and able to retain moisture and humidity. It also has to be healthy for your animal.

Here are a bunch of beddings you’ll want to avoid.

  • Any potting soil that is not 100% organic and free of additives (many of them have added fertilizers and other chemical or wetting agents).
  • Calcium sand
  • Sand (sand is actually OK however I would still recommend against it, as it can be ingested and there are simply better alternatives).
  • Gravel
  • Silica
  • Anything that contains perlite or vermiculite.
  • Pine bark or cedar wood chips (the aroma and oils from the wood will be harmful and cause respiratory problems for your box turtle).
  • Newspaper
  • Walnut shells
  • Aspen shavings
  • Cat litter
  • Reptile carpet

The problem with calci-sand (calcium sand) is that it is very dry and doesn’t hold moisture well at all. All it will do is dry out your turtle’s skin. Regular sand is actually OK, but can also, if ingested in large amounts, cause impaction in your turtle’s digestion system.

Gravel, shavings, walnut shells and other things like that can cause scratches, get into your turtle’s eyes and are not good at retaining humidity.

Cat litter is super dangerous to use as bedding, as it completely soaks up all moisture and is very harmful to your turtle.

A newspaper doesn’t retain humidity, and if wet, gets moldy super fast.

Reptile carpet, on the other hand, is OK except that it, again doesn’t retain humidity as well as things like coconut fiber and doesn’t allow for any type of burrowing.

Avoid the above-mentioned beddings and substrates at all costs! They WILL be harmful to your turtle!

Summary

  • A good box turtle bedding should be able to retain humidity well, allow burrowing, and be non-toxic.
  • In my opinion, Eco-Earth plus organic soil, mixed with something such as sphagnum moss is the best overall substrate for box turtles.
  • Other excellent choices for beddings are peat moss and cypress mulch.
  • Do your best to avoid the beddings listed in this article, they are very dangerous.
  • Try to put down at least 3-4 inches of bedding, to allow for humidity retention and burrowing.
  • Try to shoot for an enclosure that is 36 inches long by 12 inches wide if possible to allow for a good amount of living space.

About the Author

Hi, I'm J and I'm the chelonian-obsessed creator of this website. Feel free to leave a comment below, as unlike a snapping turtle, I promise I won't bite!

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