Simple Outdoor Hides & Houses for Tortoises
- stars & other small, dryish area species -
Insulated and heated tortoise house for a warm climate. Door is closed at night.
Easy tortoise houses
As I've mentioned before, I have no skills or interest in carpentry, so I am always looking for easy to modify products and supplies to use in my tortoise enclosures. This page covers simple outdoor housing solutions that anyone can do. No special skills needed. :O)
I live in a warm, but not hot, climate. What works for me and my tortoises may not work in other areas. You'll need to adjust your tortoise houses making them cooler or warmer depending on your climate.
Fumes & materials
When new, it's best to let all DIY or commercial tortoise houses (made for rabbits / chickens / dogs) air well outside in the sun for several days or weeks until the wood coating (paint, lacquer, etc) odor is gone. I would not lock a tortoise into a house that's full of paint fumes. Always AIR OUT closed houses well before use!
Typically, commercial dog and rabbit houses are built with either cedar or fir wood. AVOID cedar! It is highly aromatic and toxic to tortoises. Fir is a safer choice. If you are building your own, choose wood that's the most odor free.
Hiding places are important
Hiding places are very important for tortoises' physical and mental well-being. Most tortoises are timid and need hides that allow them to relax and feel secure. Shady, cool hiding places protect tortoises from overheating and sunstroke on hot, sunny days, and heated houses keep them warm during winter.
My Burmese and Sri Lankan Star tortoises use their artificial outdoor hides every now and then, but they especially like to hide under small bushes or tufts of grass. All my tortoise enclosures have plants or clumps of taller grass for this purpose.
All my Star tortoises love to hide under bushy plants and grassy lumps. These are Burmese Stars.
One of my Golden Greeks' favorite outdoor hiding places is a small patio table, with legs cut shorter, stuffed full of grass. I water the pile of dry grass thoroughly every morning. This keeps the soil under the table damp all day.
Solar heated hides
a.) Cold frames
If you live in a cool climate, you want to use outdoor hiding places that provide warmth. Small garden cold frames, aka miniature greenhouses, are popular in northern Europe as tortoise houses. Cold frames protect plants, or tortoises, from cool weather and wind. They have sloped, clear roofs and stay at least 5-10 °F warmer than the outside air. They should face south for maximum sun exposure.
If the cold frame has wooden sides, just cut a door opening for the tortoise to get in and out of it. If the side walls are made of glass or plastic, you can elevate the cold frame on stone blocks or bricks. This way, the lowest part of the walls is made of bricks with a small opening left in the front for entry and exit.
Garden polytunnels, semicircular polyethylene covers used to grow plants in temperate climates, are another choice for outdoor warm up houses. They are available in small, low sizes just right for tortoises. They are also easy to build yourself. For example, you can use plastic pipes to form a semicircular frame or wood pieces to create a rectangular frame.
Normal greenhouse films block short wavelength UV light (UVB), but there are new generation greenhouse films that allow natural UVB and infrared through. They are labeled as "UV transparent" films, or something similar, and are ideal for tortoise greenhouses.
Steel & stone fortresses
If you leave your tortoises outside overnight, they will need some kind of a predator proof night area. I have used both totally enclosed wire cages built with welded dog kennel panels and concrete block strongholds with welded wire tops. I place a tortoise house (heated or unheated as needed) inside the fortress so that my tortoise can enter and leave the house at will, but still be inside a protected area.
If the wire openings are larger than 1/2", it's best to cover the panels with a 1/4" or 1/2" hardware cloth. Actually, most welded wire panels have 2"-4", or larger, openings. The tightest welded panels I've found have 1" openings.
Tortoise fortress. The walls are made with concrete blocks and the roof consists of welded wire panels. The door opening in the wall is closed securely at night.
An easy way to make predator proof outdoor tortoise enclosure covers is to use ready made dog kennel panels and cover them with hardware cloth. For example, the welded wire panel show above is heavy and very strong.
You could also use chrome wire shelves, closet wire shelves, garage wire shelves, etc. for this purpose. Closet wire shelves even have small edges in the front that can be "draped" over the outside pen walls to keep them in place. Or, you could build a frame for the hardware cloth with PVC pipe, but it would be much lighter in weight.
I cut the the hardware cloth to size with snip scissors and then tie it to the panel with wire or UV resistant outdoor zipties.
Modified rabbit houses
During cooler weather, you'll need a heated tortoise house if you keep Star tortoises outside. Single level, top opening rabbit houses can be modified fairly easily for tortoise use. Rabbit houses are lower than dog houses and chicken coops, so they can work well. No unnecessary height to heat.
You will have to insulate all the walls, floor and ceiling to make the house airtight and keep the heat in during cold weather. One easy way to add insulation is to use insulation foam boards and then cover them with reflective or bubble wrap insulation that can be simply taped to the walls. Whatever insulation you choose, the material should be safe, non-toxic, and as "tortoise proof" as possible.
Attach a reptile radiant heat panel or a ceramic heater (CHE, see heating) to the ceiling of the compartment. Radiant heat panels are a better choice because they distribute the heat over a much larger area. For safety, any heater should be thermostatically controlled. The floor should be waterproofed for easy cleanup. Expect to see lots of pee and poop on the floor. :O)
In freezing cold climates, these insulated rabbit houses may not be warm enough for the middle part of the winter, but they can be used as "day and season extenders." Even if you bring your tortoises inside for nights, a heated outdoor house allows them to go out earlier in the morning and come in later in the evening. Heated houses also extend they outdoor season by allowing them to go outdoors earlier in the spring and stay out later in the fall.
This Pawhut rabbit coop (16 x 36" x 16" h) is about the right size for a few small tortoises. I placed a 12" long garden tortoise statue next to the door for scale. This well priced rabbit hutch comes with an attached 1/2" hardware cloth pen as well, but it's quite small. I use it separately as a baby tortoise pen (no pic).
Same house with insulation and a reptile radiant heat panel installed. For better heat retention, place styrofoam insulation boards under the reflective insulation. To make the house stronger, you can use thin wood boards over the foam boards instead of the bubble insulation. Or use both.
The big plastic tub is waterproof, easy to clean, and made of nontoxic plastic (NOT PVC). It protects the house floor and inner walls from digging tortoises' nails. This tub is a little too short, but once I find a better fitting one, I'll switch it.
Only about 1/3 to 1/2 of the house should be heated. This allows the tortoise to retreat to a cooler area inside the night box if needed. ALWAYS use a THERMOSTAT with any heating device placed inside a small, closed area to avoid overheating.
This type of small rabbit hutches are popular in Europe as tortoise houses. This Pawhut house (20" x 16" x 17" h) is so teeny that it only fits one small tortoise or a few babies. Due to the very small size, it's difficult to heat only one side of it. Even the smallest radiant heat panel would cover most of the ceiling leaving the tortoise with no place to escape the heated area. So it's best use a house this small as an insulated, but unheated summer time night box only.
Modified dog houses
Flat roof, top opening dog houses are another choice for outside tortoise dens in mild climate areas. Ideally, choose a dog house that is insulated all around, including floor, walls, and roof. Obviously, the better insulated the house is, the less less energy is needed to heat it. Add extra insulation as necessary for your climate.
Once you have the dog house insulated, all you need to do is to add a heating system for warmth and possibly a ramp for tortoises to get in and out. If the house has no door, you can install both a solid door for night time and a clear plastic strip door for day time.
You can also find companies or individuals who build well insulated dog houses for cold, snow climates. For a fee, they will modify the dog house for tortoises.
I made this insulated and heated tortoise house using a Ware Premium+ dog house (size small 33 1/2” x 22 1/2” x 23” h). It has the right shape, it's low enough, and has a flat, top opening lid. At night, the door is covered up to keep heat in and predators out.
Instead of the usual foam and bubble insulation, I used the matching Ware insulation kit to warm it up. Here's a close up photo of what the Ware Hot Dog insulation kit looks like. It's all one piece and just zips and velcros in place. Other companies make similar insulation kits for their own dog houses as well.
To waterproof the bottom, I added a large plastic tub inside. I had to cut the tub's sides a bit lower and create an opening for the doorway. The 30 gal Sterilite tub (30 1/2” x 20 1/4” x 15 5/8”) fits perfectly inside the house. I fill the tub with soil, coconut coir, or mix of the two. I also attach a thermostat controlled reptile radiant heat panel to the inside of the lid.
Note: Sterilite boxes are made of polypropylene and polyethylene that are safe for food storage. According to their website, no PVCs, latex, teflon, phthalates chemicals, fungicides, Bishphenol A (BPAs), or antibacterial chemicals are used in the manufacturing process. See the indoor housing page for more info on safety of various plastics. For example, PVC aka vinyl is a known toxic.
Finished house with the reptile radiant heat panel installed.
We only get rains in the winter here, and even then it's not often. Even though these houses seem to have waterproof tops, I do put a tarp or a strong piece of plastic over them during the rain months for extra water protection. The door is closed at night.
Storage sheds & deck boxes
If you cannot keep tortoises inside your house during the winter, super well insulated outdoor sheds with backup heaters or warm, insulated garages with heated tortoise tables / houses may be the safest way to go in cold climates. The better you insulate, the more you save in heating costs!
Plastic deck boxes, aka patio storage boxes, can also be modified to use as heated tortoise houses (e.g. Rubbermaid 5E39). Just cut the doorway, add a safe heating element, and seal any cracks between the panels. Add insulation as needed.
Outdoor tortoise house heating choices include ceramic heat emitters (CHE's, bulbs that provide heat only, no light), reptile radiant heat panels (great for background heating, installed on ceiling or wall), hound heaters (dog house furnaces), and farm animal heat mats (pig blankets).
Zoo Med manufactures a 40W pig blanket type heater, the ReptiTherm Habitat Heater. Unlike other Zoo Med ReptiTherm heaters, the Habitat Heater (pic) is not an undertank heat mat, but a large (18"x18"), rigid plastic mat. It has an automatic, thermostatic shutoff to prevent overheating.
You can place pig blanket type heaters uncovered on the tortoise house floor, but it's safer to attach them to the wall or ceiling. These heaters will not radiate a lot of heat, but they will warm up a small, well insulated space.
I only use overhead reptile radiant heat panels in my tortoise houses because they distribute the heat over a much larger area than small, bulb like CHE's. Radiant panels keep tortoises warmer and won't cause spot burns on shells if properly installed.
When installing any heating elements on the inside of a tortoise house, be careful. You don't want your tortoise to burn himself or the heating unit to become a fire hazard. Follow manufacturer's installation instructions and use outdoor approved cords and products.
Check the house temps. Always use a thermostat with all types of heating devices when heating small, closed spaces to prevent overheating. Leave part of the house unheated to create a bit cooler area for the tortoise to retreat into when needed.
All heated outdoor housing should be escape and predator proofed, especially at night when you can't see what's going on. The heating system should ideally have some kind of protection against electrical failure, especially in cold climates. Otherwise, your tortoise may be exposed to freezing temperatures and suffer serious injuries or worse.
Reptile radiant heat panel and weatherproof electricity connection boxes
I use weatherproof power and extension cord boxes for my temporary, winter time electrical connections to keep them dry from sprinkler water and rain.
The Sockit boxes, aka Dri-boxes, are great. I use the smallest boxes (13.5” x 9.5” x 4.75”) for my thermostats and the medium size boxes (16” x 13” x 6”) work well for a bit larger stuff. The cord openings in the Sockit boxes have "gel like" seals to keep water out.
I also protect my outdoor power and extension cord connections with water tight covers. I've tried a couple of different kinds, and I prefer the capsule like extension cord safety seals shown in the photo above.
Related page: outdoor pens