Tortoises love being outdoors where they can live a "tortoise life" exploring, grazing, basking, and resting under bushes. If you have any outdoor space, please do provide an outside pen for your tortoises, either as a full-time home or for daily outings. Weather permitting, of course. Nothing beats real sunshine for UV and natural vegetation for diet.
GO BIG !!! Give your tortoises the biggest outdoor pens you can. They will appreciate it. The only exception are hatchlings and youngsters who will do fine in a smaller pen for the first few years. Babies and small juvenile tortoises would get lost (you wouldn't find them) in a big enclosure. For the little ones, the enclosure should have a predator proof cover and have plenty of cool, damp hiding places to escape the hot sun. Don't be surprised if your baby tortoise spends most of his time hiding, not basking. That's what they do. :0)
Use lots of plants for tortoises to eat and hide under, variations in the ground level, several shady hiding places, and diverse substrate areas (soil, rocky, damp, dry etc). Obstacles, like large rocks or logs, and mounds of soil create many different paths for tortoises to follow.
Always provide a variety of shady hiding places. This is important for all ages of tortoises, but especially for babies who can dehydrate very quickly in the sun. These can be plants like bushes and large grass tussocks, damp substrate areas in the shade, shade cloth, shade covers, and combinations of these. My angulates, Burmese stars, and Greeks all like to hide in shady, damp areas under plants. I water the plants as needed during warm days to keep these areas sufficiently wet.
Another must is a large, shallow drinking dish placed in a shady area to keep the water cool. Use sprinklers or hand water as needed during hotter days.
I keep my Sri Lankan and Burmese star tortoises outdoors when the temperature is around 70 °F (21 °C) and above. Also, when it's warm and not very windy, a temperature of 65 °F (18 °C) and above is often sufficient as long as the enclosure is in the sun.
Ideally, never keep star tortoises outside overnight if the temperature falls below 60-65 °F (16-18 °C), unless they have a warm house they can retreat to. They may tolerate lower temperatures, but why take the risk? Be especially cautious in wet and cold conditions. I do not leave my star tortoises out at night for temperature and security reasons.
One of my adult star tortoise pens and a covered star hatchling pen. This is during the dry summer so there isn't a whole lot vegetation left in the larger pen.
Star tortoise pens in the spring time. Pens are greener with more food for the tortoises to eat. The metal panels in the front are same kind of temporary panels as in the last two photos on this page, just different color.
Some of my star tortoise pens including a covered stone block hatchling pen in the front (only partially visible).
My angulates go out when it's sunny and above 60-65 °F (16-18 °C). Like my stars, they spend their nights indoors, although, they would probably be just fine outdoors in my area without heat for most of the year.
Angulate tortoise nesting in her outdoor pen.
My golden Mesopotamian Greek tortoises are much more cold tolerant than my star tortoises. All my golden Greeks, except the smallest babies, stay outdoors year round. I live in a warm, but not hot, climate with mild winters where the night temperatures almost never go down to freezing. Our winter nights are typically in the 40's °F, but may occasionally dip down to high 30's °F. Days are often sunny and in the 50-60's °F.
At first, I provided heated houses for all my golden Greeks during the colder months, but now I keep my captive-bred ones (hatched and raised by me) outdoors with no additional heat even during the winter. They do not go into hibernation and are up and about every day, unless it's raining. During those rainy days I keep them locked inside their rainproof shelter. Cold and wet is risky for them.
My imported Mesopotamian Greeks are more sensitive and much more prone to illness. During summer, spring, and fall no additional heat is required for them in my area, but in the winter they have a heated night house to keep them warm and cozy.
Stone block angulate tortoise pen. The water dish is shaded by a small patio table with legs cut shorter. The little bush also shades the water from the afternoon sun.
I have used wooden enclosures, chain link pens, welded wire mesh kennels, dog play pens, and stone block walls as tortoise pens outdoors. Decorative stone blocks are my favorite material to use. They look great but are fairly expensive to buy in large quantities. Plus, they are very heavy to lift and haul. Auch!
I like enclosures build with natural looking stone blocks better than ones made with plain concrete construction bricks, aka cement or cinder blocks. I just casually place the stones on top of each other. This makes my backyard look like it's full of ancient Greek or Roman ruins. Maybe an archeological dig site. :O)
Stone block pens have many advantages. They can be build in any shape, and later moved or enlarged as needed. Stone blocks are very durable and can't be eaten by insects. They could even be painted to match any house or outdoor decor. Stone blocks also retain heat from the sun for a while and can provide slightly warmer areas during the evening. No special skills or tools are required to build stone pens. Just lift and stack. Smaller tortoises cannot push or move these blocks because they weigh about 20 lb each.
To help prevent escapes by wall climbing, you can build the top layer with larger or flatter stone blocks to create a small overhang. A wooden "lip frame" is another choice. A wooden top frame also allows for easy fastening of wire top lids.
For diggers, you can lay an extra line of stone blocks on the outside of the walls. This way your tortoise would have to dig through two block widths to get out. With daily inspections, you would probably notice any escape attempts before he got that far. Or, you can place flat concrete pieces dug down into the dirt next to the inner wall edges.
One negative aspect of stone blocks is their hard, rough surface. If your tortoise is a fence walker and likes to patrol the pen perimeter, he may scrape his shell against the surface of the walls. This can cause some scute wear and tear in contact areas. Lining the insides of the pen walls with some smooth material, like thin wood or plastic helps prevent shell abrasions.
Many people like to build their own tortoise pens and houses from scratch, but not everyone has the interest, time, space, or tools to do so. Or the big truck to haul the building materials home in the first place. :O)
I am not a DIY builder, so I am always looking for items that I can repurpose or alter for my tortoises. Rabbit pens and runs can be modified fairly easily for BABY tortoise use. I always look for hardware cloth rabbit runs that have small wire openings (1/4" - 1/2"), or at least have very closely spaced bars.
The pens below may not be available anymore by the time you read this, but I'm sure you can find something similar. They are just simple wire mesh covered pens. Two story rabbit pens with attached houses do not work with tortoises because the ramps are way too steep for them.
A BABY tortoise pen is covered with a hardware cloth rabbit run. The openings in the wire mesh are small (1/2”). This Advantek pen is 71" x 36" x 19"H in size and has two top openings and two end openings. You can join two or more covers to enlarge the pen. The landscape blocks around the pen prevent babies from digging under the walls and escaping. In hot weather, keep part of the pen well shaded and damp (not shown).
Here's another rabbit pen I've used as a BABY tortoise enclosure cover. This one is an Ardinbir pen (57" x 36" x 22" H) with 1/2" openings in the steel mesh. It has a folding top that opens 2/3 of the way and one side access door. You can easily attach two of them together by removing the side doors.
Note 1: In this photo the pen is NOT YET properly set up for tortoises.
Note 2: Notice the stone blocks along the fence for extra garden security.
If you need something temporary, modular puppy pen panels work well. They can be installed or taken down on a moments notice, but because they are see-through, you'll need to attach some kind of view barrier to the bottom of the panels. The perimeter should be dig proofed with stone blocks or other ways.
The steel pen panels I've used are available several heights (24", 32", 40") and in black or gray color. Eight panel kits are sold under various brand names for about $60 and up. I like the 24" height panels because I can easily step over them without having to open the gate. Plus they are the cheapest! :0) I use as many kits as needed to create the pen size I need. Here's a link to the eight panel 24" pen kits I've bought ($55 w. free shipping, over 120 customer photos).
I used the gray 24" tall steel panels for this tortoise enclosure. This pen is super easy to install, just attach the panels to the support stakes and push the stakes into the ground. I placed stone blocks along the outer edges to prevent digging under.
I placed green plastic sheeting along the outer edge as a sight barrier for the tortoises. Panels are 24" high.