Box turtles live mostly on land and need the proper bedding material. These substrates are what I would recommend as 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 giving a box turtle a proper substrate
And I’ll be the first to admit that I made both of these mistakes when I received both my first aquatic and first box turtle.
This is exactly why I wrote this article.
Let’s get straight to it.
Before we go into beddings and substrates for box turtles, I first need to make a very brief, but important point here.
Box Turtles Need Space
Just because box turtles don’t need even 1% of the water that aquatic species do, doesn’t mean that they can be put into tiny aquariums.
The AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) recommends a minimum size of 20-gallons for a box turtle. The thing is, box turtles aren’t going to be swimming in deep pools of water, so using gallons as a metric isn’t entirely accurate.
I would strongly recommend that you follow this rule of thumb for the size of your indoor enclosure:
- 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 or acquire a tank or enclosure 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.
For outdoor enclosures (which are even better for box turtles), 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 enclosure size, that being, the larger your enclosure, the easier you able to put enough bedding down.
The Best Substrate for Box Turtles
Think about where most box turtles live.
All over the world, they tend to live in forested areas with a touch of light hitting the ground in certain areas. And they aren’t typically on sand or dry, compact soil but loose, humid earth.
Being so low to the ground, box turtles thrive in high humidity, low light environments.
That’s what you want to replicate with your enclosure.
- light obscured by plants, shrubs and vegetation
- high humidity
- loose, but moist dirt that holds humidity and allows for burrowing
My Personal Favorite Substrate
The best substrate for box turtles that I have found is:
- Zoo Med Eco-Earth Coconut Fiber Substrate (click to check current price on Amazon) – This is what I use as the bedding for my box turtle. It comes in loose soil or brick form. I prefer the brick form, but both are OK.
What it is is basically coconut fiber compressed into bricks. You take the brick, put it into a large bucket, add a bit of really warm water and it will expand really fast into a looser, moist bedding.
It’s non-toxic, all-organic and very inexpensive. It’s also PERFECT to use as bedding for box turtles.
This is what I personally use as my base bedding.
Now, you can use Eco-Earth as your sole bedding or do what I would recommend, and that is too mix it with something else, such as regular soil, leaf litter, peat moss or sphagnum moss. This is even better because the mosses help to keep even more moisture and humidity inside your habitat.
How Much Substrate to Add Into Your Tank
Up at the beginning of this article, I talked about how the more size you have, the better.
Here’s where this all ties in:
- 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 Excellent Beddings for Box Turtles
A good 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 short list 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 (not too much as it can a bit coarse and can scratch your turtle)
- wood chips or shavings (as long as they are not 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:
- 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 which can harm your box turtle.
Go 100%, total-organic or not at all.
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 above combination or substrate your choose, make sure you lay down at least 3 or 4 inches.
Even more is better.
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)
- 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)
- 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 as bedding, as it completely soaks up all moisture and is very harmful for your turtle.
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 cost! They WILL be harmful for your turtle!
- A good substrate for a turtle should be able to retain humidity well, allow burrowing and be non-toxic
- My personal recommendation is Eco-Earth, mixed with something such as sphagnum moss
- Other excellent choices for beddings are: soil, sphagnum moss, peat moss, 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