Wednesday, July 24, 2024

How to make a closed-chamber baby habitat out of a 55gal Sterilite bin - short version

Since several folks have asked about how to make a closed chamber baby enclosure out of a 55gal Sterilite tote, here are some pics and description of how I do.

This is not the most beautiful option, but since the babies will only be in here for 9-12 months, I'm okay with that. My own Russian tortoise babies move outside full-time at about 9 months old.


I buy these 55gal (200 quart) Sterilite bins from Target or Home Depot, whichever is cheapest at the time. They cost between $25 -$40, depending on where you buy them and the time of year.

After trying several different kinds of bins, I've found these to work best.

I use an oscillating cutter with a T blade. A Dremmel with a cutting wheel will work too. Or in a pinch, a wood burner or even just an old knife you repeatedly hold into a hot flame… but whatever you do, use eye protection. Hot plastic bits do fly. Practice on a piece of similar material that you don’t care about.

First, draw a rectangle with sharpie. It should be about 6" or more up from the bottom, to leave enough room for the substrate.

Before you cut out the rectangle, drill 4 holes for the zip tie hinges. (2 holes near the left edge of the rectangle, 2 holes to the left of the line)

Cut out the rectangle.

Use zip ties to create the hinges. Optionally, you can also drill 2 small holes on the right side of the door flap to make a 'handle' out of a zip tie.

Cut holes for the basking lamp and the CHE (or drill holes to mount the radiant heat panel). Line the edges of the holes with aluminum foil.

I mount a 24" Arcadia T8 UVB Tube light fixture in the back of the lid, which I run for 4 hrs in the afternoon during the winter. During the warm months, my baby tortoises spend 30mins - 1hr outside every day for UV, so I don't use artificial UV light during this time.

This photo shows a door hole on top, too, but I ended up closing it off with tape because I just lost humidity out of it, and I never used it.

You can add additional insulation (though not attractiveness) by taping either silver bubble insulation, or styrofoam insulation boards around 3 sides. I also always set the bin onto a piece of styrofoam. The less heat you lose, the lower wattage bulb you can use.

For information on HEAT and LIGHTS, please refer to the baby care sheet and other articles posted here.

I hope this helps you as you get set up for your baby tortoise!

Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Baby Russian Tortoise Care Sheet - updated with 2024 links

Baby tortoise care sheet for Russian tortoises, Greek, Hermanni, and Marginata

This care sheet was written originally for baby Russian tortoises, but the same keeping methods also apply to raising Greek, Hermanni and Marginata.

Baby Russian tortoises have similar needs to adult Russian tortoises. A requirement of higher humidity and hydration is the main difference. With good humidity, UVB, and healthy food, your tortoise will grow to be a healthy and smooth adult. If kept too dry, they will have irregular, pyramided shell growth, and may appear stunted. The methods in this care sheet should be practiced for the first year of your tortoise’s life.

When your baby arrives, unpack her and set her in a small opaque bin with shallow, lukewarm water – just up to the seam where the top shell and the bottom shell meet - for 10 or so minutes. Then place her in her enclosure in front of a pile of greens. She might eat right away, or she might just explore.

Don't be shocked when you pick her up: baby tortoises have some "flex" in their shells. As they ingest calcium, the shell will harden. The plastron (belly shell) hardens more slowly than the carapace.

You may observe small, light-colored ‘squiggly’ lines in the tortoise’s shell keratin – these are normal in growing tortoises, and are also a sign that the animal is well-hydrated.

WARNING: baby tortoises are VERY quick! If you are picking up the tortoise, please secure it so it can’t jump/run off your hand.


Please be sure to set up and run the enclosure for a week before you receive your tortoise! This will give you time to adjust the bulb height or wattage, and iron out any other issues you encounter!

Russian tortoise babies should be kept in an enclosure that provides room to roam, safety from other pets (e.g. dogs and cats), and holds warmth and humidity well. Open-top tortoise tables are not ideal for the first year, as too much humidity is lost otherwise, and the wood can rot from the high humidity.

In the past I’ve used 40gal glass breeder tanks for raising baby tortoises. I covered part of the top with plexi glass and/or heavy duty foil, to help keep in more of the humidity.

In recent years, I have transitioned to using 55gal Sterilite bins. These are less expensive and make a really good closed chamber baby enclosure: I cut small holes into the lid for the light and heat source cables, and cut a square hole in the front, making a hinged door using zip ties for hinges. A 55 gallon bin is large enough for the first year or two, but not so large that I constantly ‘lose’ the babies in the enclosure. I buy them from Target, Walmart, or Home Depot. Sterilite makes a 55gal (200 quart) bin that I really like.

The next two pictures show some of my 55gal Sterilite bin setups. I have a separate, more detailed file that shows how to create these.

This picture shows a creative solution Jessica found using a 54gal Rubbermaid bin. She cut out a portion of the lid and replaced it with hardware cloth (lamp side) and plexiglass (viewing window) that is held on by Velcro. This gave her easy access and kept her cat out. Please note that small mesh will filter UVB light, so should not be used under the light source.

(More information about lighting will be provided below.) 
(pic used with permission from Jessica)

You can also build your own baby habitat out of expanded PVC, but since tortoises should only be in this kind of setup until they are about 18 months old, I prefer the easy bin option.

A space of 1.5ft x 3ft floor dimension is sufficient for 1 baby. Once they get bigger, Russian tortoises need much more space (e.g 3ft x 6ft or more)! Depending on the location of the enclosure, it may be necessary to insulate it – I tape foil-covered Styrofoam insulation board around 3 sides of my baby tank and set it onto a Styrofoam board. The foil bubble wrap insulation works well, too.

For substrate I put in about 5” of additive-free topsoil from my garden mixed 1:1 with coconut coir. Any additive free soil without perlite or fertilizers or manure will work. Some tortoise keepers are now recommending against using bagged topsoil from stores because there are no regulations as to what goes into them (there could be pesticide or poisonous plants in it). A good alternative would be to put a layer of washed fine orchid bark on top of a generous layer of packed-down coconut coir. It is important that at least some of the substrate is packed down enough to give good footing, so your tortoise can develop strong leg muscles. 

The substrate should be kept pretty moist. If you pick up a handful of it and squeeze, a few drops should run out. I place a flat stone under the basking spot and make a nice little landscape of hills, large and small rocks and plants throughout the enclosure, keeping safety in mind.

I add 20-ish pill bugs (isopods) into the enclosure from our yard – they come out at night and clean up any poop or left over plant matter! (Check under stones or pieces of bark Spring-Fall to find them)

All tortoise babies should be given constant access to a water dish, so that they can drink and soak as needed. I like to use a 4” glazed plant saucer. I put several small rocks in it to help baby get in and out safely. You can nest 2 identical saucers to make it easier when you take the top one out to clean. Placing a few flat rocks around the water dish will also help prevent the substrate from being tracked into the water.

Please be sure to read below info about soaking your baby!
(pic used with permission from Jessica)

A baby tortoise enclosure must have UVB light, a basking spot of 95°F, a hot humid hide (always 75°F, using a CHE and a JumpStart thermostat). I outline the specifics of lighting and heating below.

I place a flat rock under the basking lamp to keep the basking temperature more constant, and I also place a flat rock or slate somewhere in the mid-section of the enclosure, for feeding on. This will later help keep claws and beak nice and healthy.

You can put a variety of drift wood and rocks, tortoise-safe plants (in a pot with additive free soil, or planted into the substrate), into the tortoise enclosure to provide climbing/exploring opportunities. Please be mindful of safety… you don’t want baby to flip over into the water, or get stuck behind something.

I mist the babies with warm water every time I walk by, minimum of 4x per day using a spray bottle or pump mister. (Be sure to unscrew the lid of the pump after each use to release the pressure… otherwise it will leak!)

There is currently some debate about whether it is advisable or safe to use a humidifier in a tortoise enclosure. The concern is that a humidifier makes very small water particles, which then are inhaled deep into a tortoise’s lungs. I used a humidifier for babies for 8 years and never had an issue. However, each keeper should further research this on their own and make a decision. NOTE: If you use a humidifier, only run it for 5-15 minutes, every 1-2 hours, depending on your climate. I used one of those little analog timers with the pegs in a circle to set this.


If your tortoise is still a baby or juvenile (under 4") it will benefit from a hot humid hide. I like the plastic shoe boxes from the dollar store. I cut a round or square door hole in about 1" -1.5" up from the bottom.

I fill it with wet coconut coir. I no longer use sphagnum moss because this can be ingested and cause issues.


Then I sink the hide into the substrate in the middle of the enclosure, between the hot end and the cool end. I suspend a 50W ceramic heat emitter (CHE) above it, attached to a JumpStart thermostat, with the probe inside the hide. I set the thermostat to 75°F. It is REALLY IMPORTANT to use a thermostat, because otherwise the CHE can overheat the whole tank. (See diagram drawn below for setup).

The CHE that heats the hot humid hide stays plugged in 24/7, and is controlled by the thermostat. The key is to keep baby humid and WARM, since moist and cold is bad for tortoises and causes respiratory infections.

I do not use a heat pad because burning from below can be severe if the bottom of the enclosure becomes too hot. Tortoises are not wired to guard themselves about overheating from below.

Raising RT babies in a more humid environment for the first year or two has been shown to give them much more even growth. After the 1st year (or once they reach 4" SCL) you can scale back humidity a little and they no longer need nighttime heat. Your baby may choose to stop using the hot humid hide around 11 months of age. I still mist their shells several times a day, and make sure the substrate doesn’t dry out.


Tortoises require UVB to grow healthy bones and shells. The best source of UVB is natural sunlight. I try to provide at least 30 minutes of outdoor time to the babies any time it is at least 55°F outside.

IMPORTANT: Baby tortoises can overheat easily! Please never leave them unattended on a hot day. ALWAYS place their outdoor bin in a location that is half shaded, half in the sun. If necessary, move the bin as the sun moves. Frequent misting will help prevent the babies from drying out. Be mindful of other animals or children that might harm your baby tortoise!

I made a planted outdoor bin that the babies spend 30 mins to 3 hours in daily during the Summer. Before adding the dirt, I drilled several drainage holes into the bottom. This helps prevent flooding. The hides are made of plastic flower pots that I cut in half and put several inches of dirt over for insulation. The tortoises enjoy climbing the little hills! The water dish is identical to the one in the indoor enclosure. I planted succulents and weeds in there and also spread some seeds for tortoise-safe weeds in there. It quickly turns into a little jungle!

Here is another view of the outdoor tortoise bin with the lid on. I used a Dremel to cut out part of the lid, drilled small holes all around, then zip-tied hardware cloth (similar to chicken wire, but with ½” holes) into the lid. The locking lid lets in the sunshine, but prevented predators from getting in.

One tortoise friend of mine got a little wheeled dolly and placed the baby bin onto it. This allowed them to wheel the bin to different locations in their yard, depending on where the sun was! Great idea, Lynne!


Because lighting for baby tortoises is the same as for adult tortoises, please read the following article first:

Baby tortoises require basking light (95°F at shell height), a UVB source and a heat source for their hot humid hide. DO NOT use the coil-style or compact UVB bulbs because they are also known to cause damage to tortoise’s eyes.  

When setting up an enclosure, I securely install L-shaped shelf brackets (from Home Depot) onto the wall, and use wire and/or a small chain to hang the basking light and the CHE. I DO NOT rely on the clamps that often come with the lamps, this can pose a fire hazard! 

I have all my lights (NOT the CHE) plugged into an analog timer to turn them on/off. 

Here is a creative solution my friend Bobbye came up with for hanging the lights. She bought the shelf brackets that can be used with a hang bar. I have also seen a similar set-up where the tortoise keeper used S-hooks to suspend the lights off of the bar. I love this, because it allows you to move the lights back and forth as needed, and you can adjust the height, too.
(photo used with permission from Bobbye)

In a closed plastic bin, I hang the UVB tube light fixture by drilling small holes into the lid and feeding zip ties through it. The fixture has holes, or you can loop the zip tie all the way around the fixture on each end.

Here are a few diagrams, as seen from above and from the side, of possible set-ups.


If you plan to use a 40gal glass tank, use a 50W or 75W flood light for basking, in combination with the tube-style UVB light (T8 or T5 HO). For a closed chamber bin setup, a 40W flood light is sufficient for basking if the light is installed mostly inside the bin, plus a UV tube light. For larger or open-topped enclosures, you will likely need a 80-100W flood bulb for basking. To adjust the basking temperature, raise or lower the bulb, or change the wattage.

I order my lighting supplies online, because this is cheaper than going to a pet store. I'll provide a list below that I've put together. No pressure to get those exact items, I just know that 'new' tortoise keepers sometimes like to get specific information sometimes.  

This T5 fixture + bulb bundle (select the 12% desert option) is a great, reliable source of UVB: - then when it’s time to replace the bulb, you can get this one: is a really fantastic product.

You can also get other lengths. Note: The T5 bulbs put out so much UVB that you can get away with only running them for a few hours each day. Not for the full 12 hours.

This T8 UVB light or this UVB light

in this fixture: (you remove the plastic cover). Or in this fixture (select 20” fixture for the 18” lamp):

You can also opt for a longer fixture and lamp – I really like the 36” ballasted fixture because it doesn’t flicker. Just make sure the bulb matches the fixture.

For basking, you can use a rough service household light bulb such as this 40 W:

 Or 60W: or this reptile halogen flood bulb: (also available in other wattage from the same seller!), or a regular 60W flood bulb from Lowes or other hardware stores. (not LED!)

You can use this kind of fixture: You can also get a fixture at ACE Hardware, Tractor supply etc - just make sure the socket is ceramic, and that it’s rated for the wattage you use. 

For the first year, baby requires a hot humid hide. I use either a 50W CHE (ceramic heat emitter) like this and you can use a smaller ceramic dome fixture like this since the CHE is only 50W. To regulate the temperature, the JumpStart thermostat is by far the best: - this is important, because CHE will otherwise overheat 

You also want to get a temp gun so you can check the temperature immediately under the basking spot.

Here's the one by Inkbird that I use and love.



Baby tortoises should be fed the same widely varied diet of edible leaves and weeds and greens and flowers that an adult eats. Special care should be taken to provide maximum nutrition. Here is a link to The Tortoise Table’s printable plant booklet:

The Tortoise Table database is also an excellent resource when checking if plants are safe to feed your tortoise, and they have an app, too. Please always err on the side of caution!

We are lucky to have weeds here most of the year, so I feed cat's tongue, thistle (sow thistle, mostly), hawksbit, broadleaf plantain, mallow, grape leaves, hibiscus leaves and flowers, violet leaves and flowers, sedum, daylily flowers, miner’s lettuce, dead nettle, mulberry leaves, turnip greens, and many other plants on the 'safe' list of The Tortoise Table database. I add in some dandelions, but only when there aren't other things. If you don't have access to weeds during the winter, you can feed mustard greens, kale, and collard greens, bitter fancy lettuces, spring mix (w/o spinach). Opuntia cactus (called ‘nopales’ in Hispanic grocery stores) is high in calcium and can be added to the diet occasionally. There are many other tortoise-safe weeds that may be available throughout the year that I did not mention here.

I don’t give my tortoises any romaine or iceberg lettuce. The nutritional value isn't great, and those can be addictive (where your tortoise would refuse other greens).

I don't chop any of it up, or even tear it up. I like to make them work a little bit to get their food. A rule of thumb is to give each tortoise a pile of food about the size of  their shell. As long as babies are kept nice and humid, and the food you offer is healthy, you can allow them to eat their fill. If the food is gone by mid-day, it’s fine to give them a second helping.

I have never fed factory-made foods (Mazuri or Zoomed grassland or other), simply because it’s not necessary here, and because I don’t trust the formulation. The ingredients lists contain too many things categorized as ‘do not feed’ on the tortoise table (such as soy and maize products).

I do not feed ANY fruit, and only very occasionally (1x per month or less) feed a vegetable such as a bit of pumpkin or carrot, for the vitamin A. Fruit is too high in sugar, and can harm the tortoise’s gut. It also creates a favorable environment in the gut for parasites to thrive. If I want to give my tortoises a ‘treat’ I give them a flower, an especially juicy sedum leaf, or a slice of opuntia cactus.

Here is a good seed mix:


I sprinkle calcium powder 1x per week. Here is an example, but there are many good options: I also always leave cuttlefish bone (e.g. in there, to so they can help themselves. 

If you want to make a home-made calcium block, here are instructions: There are several options of powdered weeds sold by Tortoise Supply: Pet Supply (TNT), Kapidolo Farms, TortRescue (on Etsy) and other online sellers. Read the ingredients carefully and only purchase if you are confident that the formulation is safe for your tortoise!


Baby tortoises have less body mass, and as a result, are more prone to dehydration. Even if babies frequently self-soak in their water dishes, I recommend to soak them every day when they are very small, and every other day once they are a year old. Tortoises need water to maintain good hydration and for proper organ function.

A soaking container should have tall sides so your tortoise can’t climb out. The water should be lukewarm and shallow, just up to the seam where the top shell (carapace) meets the bottom shell (plastron).

A soak should last about 20 minutes – you may need to change the water if it gets too soiled or too chilly.

We soak our baby tortoises during breakfast. This is fun for the kids (‘breakfast buddies’!), and it also makes it easy for us to keep an eye on them to ensure they don’t flip over and drown.

Tortoises will often poop during their soak. They will also often release urates – which are a white creamy (or lightly granular) substance. Both are perfectly normal.

Several people have asked me what my daily routine is with the tortoises, since it does take a little bit of time to care of tortoises properly. I have found that associating tortoise care with our regular daily activities makes it easy to find a good routine.

In the morning the lights turn on by themselves, controlled by an analog timer. After getting dressed, I get the babies and their soiled water dish out of their enclosure. I place the tortoises in their soaking containers, and I clean the water dish. The baby tortoises soak while we eat breakfast. After about 20 minutes (during which I’ve also fixed school lunch for kids, and made sure they brushed their teeth etc), I put the babies back into their enclosure. I give them a nice big pile of weeds, and mist the enclosures thoroughly with warm water. Then we go about normal morning activities.

Mid-morning my youngest and I usually go outside on a walk or into our yard to pick weeds for the next day. When we get home, I mist the babies again, wash and pack up the weeds, and continue with our day. Sometime in the afternoon I check on the babies, mist them, and if they have eaten all their food, I give them a second pile of weeds. Before starting dinner, I usually mist them one more time, and the lights turn out around 7pm.

I weigh them about once every 2 weeks. The pill bugs take care of most of the clean-up in the enclosures. As needed I rearrange tortoise furniture (if e.g. they outgrow things, or they climb on things dangerously), add new plants, etc.

A note: Our tortoises are used to normal family activities around them. Their enclosures are in our living room, and the kids play around them, are loud, and watch them. They sit on our dining table for their morning soak, with little faces peeking down at them. However, I minimize how much we actually touch and handle the tortoises. I believe that observing them in a natural habitat is more beneficial than constantly actively interacting or playing with them. As I check on them throughout the day, I might place one of them that I’ve noticed has been sitting on the cool end for a long time into the hot humid hide. But for the most part, I just let them do their own tortoise thing. Please don’t handle your baby too often – this can cause stress, which can lead to them eating less, which can slow down their development.


Tortoises, especially Russian tortoises, are very territorial, and can become violent towards others of their kind. Sometimes bullying is more subtle, but just as deadly. I do not recommend keeping more than one tortoise in an enclosure once they are older than one year. I definitely do not recommend keeping a baby tortoise together with an adult tortoise!

When they are babies, you can sometimes get away with keeping multiples in an enclosure that is large enough. However, avoid pairs, and please keep a constant watchful eye on them to make sure all are thriving!

For more reading on the hazards of keeping 2 tortoises together, please refer to my blog post:

If you have the resources to provide individual set-ups that are large enough, and you have the time to care for multiple tortoises… obviously there is no reason not to have more than one tortoise… just don’t house them together as adults!

Resources for further reading:
Facebook Groups: (Russian Tortoises, Hermanns and Greeks 2)

The Tortoise Forum:

Tom’s care sheet:   

Joe Heinen’s page on RTs:

Shelled Warriors:

The Tortoise Table (info on plants):

Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group:

The Tortoise Trust (good info on hibernating etc.):

My tortoise blog:

My Instagram:

My Breeder page:


Please never hesitate to ask questions!