Hibernating Box Turtles: Protecting Them in Outdoor Burrows


This guy says you can hibernate box turtles outside if they're healthy and native to your area.

This guy says you can hibernate box turtles outside if they’re healthy and native to your area
Photo by Bob Larrick @ Flickr; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Some time around October, most box turtles start to slow down, stop eating and look for a good place to spend the winter hibernating. As the nights get colder, they may dig into a burrow overnight while still coming out during the day.

Eventually, they’ll settle in for good, disappearing until spring in most cases. Sometimes, if you get a week or more of warm days, they might come out briefly and then go back to their holes when the temperatures drop again.

If your pet boxie lives outside, you’ll need to help him get ready for this annual ritual.

One note: Even if your pet spends the summer outside, if he’s not native to your area, do not hibernate him outside. Take him inside and keep him active or hibernate him inside. If he’s sick or underweight, do not hibernate him at all. Just bring him inside, keep him warm and fed, and treat his illness.

Make Sure Your Turtles are Healthy and Ready to Hibernate

As mentioned, sick turtles should not hibernate. Get them a vet checkup in August or early September. That way, if they’re sick, you can treat them and get them healthy before hibernation time.

Make sure they get plenty of good nutrition for the last month or so, too. Of course, you’ve been feeding them a good variety of food already, which is why they’re healthy and ready to hibernate (right?). But extra nutrition, especially Vitamin A, is important to help them survive the stress of hibernation.

Boost their Vitamin A stores with lots of carrots, sweet potatoes and even a drop or two of cod liver oil for one or two of their last meals of the season. Make sure they get protein, too.

They’ll probably stop eating on their own, but just the same, stop offering food at least two weeks before you expect them to start hibernating. Give them daily warm baths for the last week or so to help make sure their guts are empty.

Pick a Hibernation Spot in Your Yard

You can either prepare an area within your pet’s normal outdoor pen or create a different spot. But keep in mind that if you pick a spot outside her pen, you’ll still need to secure it from predators and escape-proof it, just like you did for her habitat. Animals that don’t hibernate in the winter will be hungry and a sleeping turtle is an easy snack. And she could escape an unsecured spot before she digs in permanently for the winter or in the spring before you notice she’s awake.

So, how do you decide? First, make sure it’s a spot that doesn’t flood in the spring. That could drown your pet. It is often possible to revive a box turtle that looks like it has drowned, but not always. Don’t risk it!

Also, try to pick a spot that’s somewhat protected. But not too shaded. High winds could blow away your pet’s insulating layer of leaves. But an area that’s too shaded may freeze more deeply than others.

Prepare the Spot

First you’ll want to make sure the soil is nice and loose. Dig and turn the soil down to below the normal freeze line for your area. In most areas you’ll want to dig down at least 2 feet. In more northerly areas, like Wisconsin, you’re safer with 3 and sometimes 4 feet.

Make the spot at least a couple of square feet for one turtle. Bigger for multiple turtles.

If you’re preparing a spot outside the normal habitat, dig a hole first and line the walls with mesh to minimize the possibility of escape. Or make a box without a top or bottom and put it in the hole. Refill with loose dirt. Make sure you have an enclosure around the pit, too, so they don’t escape during occasional nice days (this is obviously not a problem if you’re using their regular habitat).

Mix additives like dried leaves, pine needles and peat moss into your loosened dirt. Moisten it all, but don’t soak it. Introduce your turtles to their new burrow once it’s done, even if it’s not quite time to hibernate.

Save some dried leaves to pile on top of your turtles after they’ve settled in for the winter. When choosing leaves, be aware that some leaves tend to turn into a soggy mess when they get wet (maples, for example). They’ll provide less insulation than those that resist matting, like oak leaves. Mixing the leaf layer with pine needles can also help keep it loose.

Let Turtles Dig In

Outside, the weather will let your pets know when it’s time to hibernate. You’ll want to be sure you have the area prepared for them before they’re ready for it. In the beginning, they may hide in it overnight but come out during the day if it’s warm enough. This could go on for a few days or weeks. It depends on how cold the nights get and how quickly the days turn cold.

Once you see they’re staying hidden during the day, add a few inches, or even a foot, of your saved leaf litter to add extra insulation.

Eventually snow will also add another insulating layer.

Some people build a little shelter over the pile for even more protection. If you want to do this, the simplest thing to do is put bricks or cement blocks along two edges of the burrow and lay boards across them, over the burrow.

When Turtles Emerge From Hibernation in the Spring

Unlike indoor hibernation, you don’t have to decide when outdoor hibernators should come out. They’ll decide all on their own when the weather gets warm enough and stays that way.

That said, you can take away some of the extra insulating leaf layer as the weather starts to warm. And if you’re worried that it’s been warm for weeks and your pet has not emerged, you can try to find her in her burrow.

Once she’s up and moving, give her food and water, and let her decide when she’s ready to eat. It will probably take a few days or even a week.

Although outdoor hibernation is more “natural,” it’s also less predictable than indoor hibernation. Do your best to be sure you’ve created a safe, protected spot for your pets to spend the winter. There’s never any guarantee that they’ll survive, but most turtle keepers find the success rate is very good when they make sure their pets are healthy and properly insulated from the cold air.

Box turtle eating strawberry


4 thoughts on “Hibernating Box Turtles: Protecting Them in Outdoor Burrows

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi Jessica,

      I don’t see why not. Plenty of boxie parents use substrate (topsoil, leaves, etc) from their yards even for their indoor turtles.

  1. David Crossley

    An ideal “roof” for the hibernation condo is a piece of styrofoam such as used in packing. It is a tremendous insulator, waterproof, and light enough for the turtle to push away to get out. A 2″ thick piece about 2′ on a side is perfect.


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