Tortoise Bedding 101: Materials, Sizes and Best Practices

Crafting the best captive habitat for your tortoise takes knowledge, effort, and a thorough understanding of what the animal needs to live a healthy and happy life.

Bedding is one of the most important elements for a variety of reasons. One of them is the substrate’s ability to regulate air humidity by retaining and releasing moisture into the atmosphere.

Today, we will discuss the various types of tortoise substrates available and how to differentiate between them in terms of usefulness and overall benefits.

Types of Bedding for Tortoises

There are different types of bedding for tortoises, so choosing the right one may not be an obvious decision.

Always consider the following factors before settling on the right option:

  • The material – The material should be safe both physically and chemically. Substrates like cedar or pine shavings are known to release resins that are toxic to tortoises when ingested. They might not even ingest them on purpose, but by mistake, when eating, the effect is still the same.
  • Absorbency – The substrate’s primary role is to absorb moisture and keep the tortoise’s environmental humidity stable. Different materials have different absorbent capabilities, so choose one that fits your tortoise’s requirements. It’s important to note that not all tortoises prefer the same humidity levels. For the most part, you need to aim for humidity levels around 40-60%, but this can vary depending on the species.
  • Ease of cleaning – The substrate should be fairly easy to clean, especially since you will be dealing with a lot of food leftovers and feces. Tortoises are omnivorous animals, so expect them to produce a lot of food residues. These can become breeding grounds for bacteria and fungi if you leave them in the enclosure.
  • Compatibility – Not all types of substrates are compatible with all tortoise species or even tortoises in general. We’ll discuss this point in more detail shortly.

Fortunately, there’s a variety of tortoise beddings to choose from, both natural and artificial. Let’s check them out in more detail!

Natural Material Bedding

You should prioritize natural beddings if possible because these cater to the tortoise’s unique requirements.

Here are some good options to consider:

  • Mulch and bark chips – These materials are natural and highly aesthetically pleasing. They imbue the tortoise’s habitat with a natural vibe and retain moisture moderately well. The problem is that you need to choose the material carefully since not all bark chips are safe. We’ve already mentioned cedar and pine and their toxic potential.
  • Leaves – These make up for an easy-to-obtain type of bedding. Leaves are also comfy and easy to clean and replace whenever necessary. However, source them wisely. Avoid leaves that your tortoise is inclined to consume, and stay away from leaves that are potentially contaminated with various pesticides or even environmental contaminants. Also, some types of leaves like plum, avocado, or cherry can be fatal due to their toxic chemicals.
  • Hemp – Hemp is great as a substrate for a variety of animals, including rodents, tortoises, and even snakes. It retains moisture quite well, it is biodegradable, and it’s safe to ingest. The problem is the pricing, as hemp can get more expensive than other bedding options.
  • Coconut husk – Coconut husk is also a great option for tortoises and reptiles in general. Aside from being an excellent moisture retainer, coconut husk also comes with a calm and pleasant odor that your tortoises will thoroughly enjoy. Just like hemp, this type of bedding is also rather expensive.
  • Peat moss – Great absorbent qualities, great insulation, and awesome natural vibe and odor. Your tortoise will most than likely love peat moss. The problem is that peat moss is slightly more difficult to clean, and replacing it can burn your pockets more than other substrates.
  • Sand – Sand is easy to clean and offers great insulation, but it’s not quite right for all tortoise species. The main problem comes in the form of tiny particles that can cause respiratory issues when inhaled and digestive problems when ingested. Before going for sand, make sure that your tortoise is fit for it.
  • Soil – I would say that soil is the most natural substrate choice you could go for. Pretty much all tortoises have contact with soil at one point or another, so they should get used to it immediately. The only downside to consider is the difficulty of maintenance. Soil is rather heavy and difficult to clean, especially due to its absorbent abilities. Soil takes in moisture (urine) fairly naturally, forcing you to replace it completely after a while.

No matter the type of natural substrate you’re going for, make sure it contains as few contaminants as possible.

So, stay clear of wild-gathered beddings unless you’re positive that there are no contaminants present.

Artificial Bedding Materials

Artificial substrates are generally easier to find and replace and generally easier to maintain as well.

When it comes to tortoises, you have several options available, such as:

  • Paper towels – Fairly common, the cheapest option you can get, easy to replace, and with great soaking capabilities. The only problem is that you’ll have to replace them fairly frequently, at least once every other day. Otherwise, they may become imbued with moisture, especially urine, leading to bacterial accumulation and mold.
  • Paper bedding pellets – This type of substrate is great for a variety of pets, especially reptiles, and rodents. The material itself is compressed recycled paper, organized in the form of small pellets. They are usually grey in color, so they’re not exactly the most natural-looking materials. They are also quite expensive, considering that you may need to replace them regularly. Also, keep in mind that bedding pellets are usually dry and will take a while to absorb moisture and soften up. This means that they’re likely to produce dust particles that can irritate your tortoise’s eyes and respiratory system.
  • Artificial turf or grass mats – Grass mats are great for the overall aesthetic effect. They come in green variations and imbue the reptile’s enclosure with a natural vibe. This bedding is soft and comfortable, so your tortoise will appreciate navigating its enclosure. Another great advantage is that grass mats don’t need replacing. You only need to clean them regularly to keep them safe and disinfected for your reptiles. The problem is that you may need to clean them more often than you’d want. These materials attract moisture fast and can lead to mold and bacterial formation.

While these are the safest and most effective types of substrates for your pet tortoise, there are other options that aren’t as great. So, let’s include those on today’s list as well!

Bedding You Should Avoid for Tortoises

The following types of bedding are unfit for your tortoise pet for several reasons, such as chemical content and material.

Here are some of the options to stay away from:

  • Sand – We’ve already mentioned sand as a recommended material for pet tortoises, so it may sound contradictory that we include sand in the ‘To avoid’ section as well. While you can use sand safely with some tortoise species, this type of substrate is not recommended overall for tortoise pets in general. Tortoises can ingest the sand and experience impaction because of it or can inhale it, in which case the problem is even more severe. Not to mention sand can also irritate the reptile’s eyes and skin, depending on its sensitivity to friction.
  • Pine or cedar bark – One could argue that pine and cedar barks are even more hazardous than sand. And one would be right. Pine and cedar contain harmful hydrocarbons that are known to irritate the reptiles’ respiratory system. These materials are also quite rugged and spiky, so they’re not exactly a match for the reptile’s sensitive skin. And the situation gets even worse when ingested.
  • Newspaper – I’ll go ahead and rank the newspaper as the worst option on today’s list. The newspaper has almost non-existent absorbent properties, and when moist, it gets soggy and sticks to the turtle’s feet and body. This can quickly lead to bacterial and mold problems and even more issues if the tortoise ingests it. If you insist on using newspaper, you’ll most likely need to replace it daily, if not several times per day. All this for minor benefits, if you could find any at all, to begin with. It’s simply not worth it.
  • Hay and straw – Hay is almost as bad as newspaper, except it comes with additional health hazards. For starters, hay has virtually no absorbent capabilities. The straws will rot when moist, harboring numerous bacterial cultures and even other pathogens and mites that could thrive on your tortoise’s bodily resources. Hay is also unfit for consumption, and your tortoise is almost guaranteed to eat some of it by mistake.

There may be other types of bedding that don’t have the best reputation for tortoises, but these are the most prevalent on the market.

Benefits of Using Bedding for Tortoise

There are several benefits of using some type of substrate for your tortoise, including:

  • The more natural look – Tortoises prefer to live in a natural-looking environment that mimics their native ecosystem. The right bedding can help precisely with that, providing your tortoise with a natural, cozy, and familiar feeling. This is ideal for keeping tortoises in good mental health over the years.
  • Improved comfort – Tortoises are simply more comfortable on some type of bedding compared to a barebones terrarium. These animals thrive on soft and comfy bedding like coconut coir, allowing them to move and rest properly.
  • Insulation – The bedding has several roles aside from comfort and the must-have aesthetic effects. One of them is insulation. Tortoises are reptiles, so they rely on their habitat to regulate their body temperature. The substrate provides sufficient insulation to keep the reptiles warm, especially if the terrarium sits in a colder room.
  • Improved hygiene – The substrate sucks in the reptile’s urine and often inhibits the unpleasant odors, depending on the material. This ensures a higher degree of hygiene, providing tortoises with a healthy and more stable habitat.

Aside from all these benefits, the right bedding can also keep tortoises in a better mental state thanks to the different materials and textures present.

Tips for Selecting the Best Bed for Your Tortoise

When it comes to selecting the best bed for your pet tortoise, consider the material first and foremost. Avoid potentially hazardous materials that could poison, scratch, or hurt your tortoise in any way.

Materials that can eliminate inhalable particles are also out of the question, given the reptiles’ proneness to respiratory problems.

The ideal qualities of the perfect tortoise bedding include:

  • Overall safety – We’ve already detailed this point.
  • Insulation characteristics – Not all types of bedding have the same insulation capabilities. Look for the best type of substrate to match the reptile’s needs depending on the species and environmental temperatures.
  • Absorbent properties – No matter the type of substrate you’re going for, you should always look for above-decent absorbent properties. Tortoises require a stable humidity meter, depending on the species, which you can preserve via different strategies, choosing the right substrate being one of them.

Finally, the substrate should also look nice and natural to match the tortoise’s preferences.


Tortoises demand specific living conditions to stay healthy and happy over the years, but they’re not exactly pretentious animals.

Find them a fitting enclosure, decorate it properly, add a nice and comfy substrate, and your tortoises won’t ask for much else.

Robert from ReptileJam

Hey, I'm Robert, and I have a true passion for reptiles that began when I was just 10 years old. My parents bought me my first pet snake as a birthday present, which sparked my interest in learning more about them. read more...