Outdoor Housing Basics

A well-planted, secure, spacious outdoor pen is the best housing for all species of tortoises. If it is done well, you should not have to offer any supplemental care all year! This is more of a ‘basic concepts’ article than a ‘how to’. See the Resources at the end for good ‘how to’s’.

Size and location

Find a good spot for the habitat. The space should allow plenty of room- at least twice that recommended for indoor housing. The best location will offer sun and shade, some hilliness, good drainage, easy access to a water supply and ideally an electrical outlet.

For security’s sake, it is also best if an escaping tortoise or intruding predator would have to pass two separate barriers to accomplish their goals. This can be a well-built pen within a fenced yard where the fence has few escape routes. Most yard fences are very open on the bottom- that can be dealt with by blocking the gaps with stonework or driving stakes into the ground to block escape.


There is no really wrong way nor perfect way to build a tortoise pen, but there are a few considerations.

Most tortoises dig, at least a little. Make sure the walls meet the ground. For digging species, sink some sort of barrier at least 8″ into the soil- much deeper for burrowing species. This barrier can be something like a buried stretch of hardware mesh cloth or metal stakes driven every few inches.

Most tortoise also climb better than we expect. Walls should be at least 1.5 times the length of the shell of the largest tortoise- 2 times is better. When walls meet at a 90o angle, there should be a cap or block on top. Pay attention to wall heights near shrubs, hides, etc. that the animals can climb to get higher.

The actual walls should be strong enough to resist tortoises pushing on them. Some species work harder at this than others. Walls should also be solid- at least at tortoise head level since some species will try hard to walk through any opening they can get their heads into.

A quick and cheap wall for smaller tortoises can be made by just using a garden edger to make a small trench. Set aluminum roofing flashing  in the trench to make a wall held up by screwing it to wooden stakes driven every few feet. A nice benefit of this otherwise bland wall is that it can be shaped in interesting ways.

Stone blocks make good walls in many ways- durable, hard to move, attractive- but they can also allow a literal stairway the tortoise can climb to escape, so pay attention to the back side.

A good water dish is needed. You can sink something like a large plant saucer, or make a cement pond, or add a water feature, but be sure it is always full and clean, and that the tortoise can easily drink from it as well as getting in and out of it. A food dish can be something as simple as a flat stone or tile.
Hides are always important. Examples of outdoor hides include…
  • Plastic tub with the lid taped on, turned upside down, with a hole cut in it.
  • Doghouse-like structure (especially useful if it can be heated on cool nights).
  • ‘Debris pile’ of sticks, branches, and leaves.
  • Naturalistic semi-artificial burrow- make the ceiling out of strong hardware mesh and a layer of screen on top, then a layer of dirt with whatever plants you wish (with fairly short roots) in it.
  • Another naturalistic burrow is just a board supported off the ground and a tunnel heading under it, then dirt piled on top and planted.
I generally offer at least two actual ‘get out of the heat and rain’ hides, and several hiding places. 
Plant the enclosure heavily with foods to nibble on and plants that provide cover. Remember- most tortoises are reclusive by nature, and forest tortoises spend much of their day under some sort of cover.
“Tortoise gardening”
This is more of an idea than a plan. Why not make a tortoise enclosure beautiful and functional by planting foods that humans, the tortoises, and birds and butterflies enjoy? At the same time, why not aim to have something blooming all the time?


Some links to outdoor pens are…

Created 8-13-2012 (C) Mark Adkins