Small Space Solution for a properly insulated natural den - Desert Tortoise "Patsy"

Amber White

New Member
Nov 1, 2014
Location (City and/or State)
West Toluca Lake, Ca
Problematic Small Space that needs protection from the summer heat: 3' width x 10' long balcony.

Location: Newlywed Apartment in Sunny Southern California.

Awesome resident?
65+ year old Desert Tortoise named "Patsy" that has been in the family since the early 60's.
I wanted to share my solution for a properly insulated den I created for our desert tortoise. This is a challenge that I have been struggling to solve for over a year. You see we are temporarily in an apartment without much outdoor space and poor old dear Patsy doesn't get the run of the back yard like she is used to. So no underground den for when it's hot. UNTIL!!! Buh...buh...buh....(dramatic pause)

We created this for her!!!
Now it probably doesn't look too awesome and involved. BUT with the structure I've created it has been a proven freakin' 98° outside with the sun directly on the balcony and the den temperature is a nice cool 63°. :)
I was so happy that day. Well, happy for Patsy - I was still hot but at least at ease because I knew she was.

You see it's a double decker ramp themed den, a long ramp on the outside and a bitty one made of dirt & stone inside. The Bottom layout, ("basement" I'll call it) is a collection of thin cement garden walls I purchased from Home Depot. I laid a square section of the balcony out with the cement blocks and using a mixture of play sand, (cleaned & sterilized for children's use in a sand box) some excavator mud, (dries into somewhat hard dirt) and filled in the open cavities, (Squishing down the wooden box structure created a nice even layout). The cement brick's width completely support the weight of the structure above and there is no way it can come down on her. I am expecting an earth quake so I made sure to account for that. I also doubled the most forward facing cement "basement" wall with two layers, she is a small but mighty tortoise and has moved furniture as a very determined bulldozer...
The inside kind of looks like this:
The Ramp is open but the whole bottom is a sizable amount if compacted digging area. (I left about 2 inches of air gap at the top and it's not severely compacted, just enough to give her something to do). I figure she can make her own path, hit the cement walls and move naturally into the center. I peek down the ramp using a hand mirror and a flashlight. She is starting to successfully dig into her custom den.
This picture shows the floor of the upper den "before" - I later packed pebble rocks mixed with Excavator clay and made a flooring on top of this wood piece. You can see how we turned the original enclosure upside down. I hand sawed the dividing wall and cut a curved entryway that better fits her body, (sanded the edges down to be soft as well). ***Scroll down to see what it looked like originally.*** I can lift up the wooden floor plank if I need to check on her digging status. I also wedged the temperature gauge on the left where there's a slight gap to be under the wood hanging slightly.
Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 7.04.11 PM.png Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 7.17.25 PM.png

(Click this thumbnail if you want to see the dirt/sand/pebbles filling in the wedges on the side) I didn't want any heat to leak into her den.

I made the side of the outter ramp (green section) from the smaller liftable lid that originally came with the wooden den. I had painted it the year before when we tried to use it as is. The rest was bought wood from home depot.

Here's my husband and I building it:
I had some fake green terrain lying around- except for a slight trimming - it fit perfectly on the outter ramp (unplanned!) Gotta love little surprises like that - so Patsy has sure footing downwards.

Eva one of our cats tested the weight factor. She and Patsy are about the same so I suppose she helped. ;)
Problems I didn't foresee:
  • Patsy gets half way down the inside dirt ramp, proceeds to dig to the left into the main bottom chamber and starts kicking her back feet as well, dislodging the top of the ramp where it meets the doorway. So she can get back out in the morning somehow when she awakes for a new day.....but doesn't want to go back down at the end of the next day because uh yeah... she created this huge gap/absence of ramp...So I have since purchased more of the excavator mud and try to reach back there filling in the spaces she destroys. (There's a lof of things now "in place" atop the wooden structure at this point... that I will just keep it where it is.....and continue helping rebuild her ramp if she tends to erode it. I don't mind. I'm sure she likes the digging.)
Things of note that were added:
My husband bought Patsy a Mylar blanket. I placed it over the top of the whole den. It helps reflect the direct sunlight! I placed some plants and herbs on top - so now it looks ascetically pleasing to our guests that visit.

In conclusion...

We are just short of a month into the new season. So far so good. Everything is settling well and Patsy has figured out a healthy routine. Still has the run of the house during the week after her morning poo, we take walks on the weekend outside. It's a rather slow...zen-like walk. (Thankfully we have access to a very long green sidewalk just outside of our apartment). And we will continue our hopes to one day have a house with a big ol' back yard where Patsy will once again have the whole lot to graze....sunbathe....and eat the dandelions she loves.

Thanks for reading. I hope this helped you if you needed something like this for your much loved tortoise living in a undesirable small space in need of temperature control. If nothing else I hope it was an interesting read.

Love & Light, Amber White.... and Patsy. <3
Last edited:


Well-Known Member
5 Year Member
Nov 2, 2013
Location (City and/or State)
southeast Washington
I think you did a great job in giving your tortoise quality enclosure with what you have to work with right now. And I love hearing about old tortoises that have been in the family for decades.

Amber White

New Member
Nov 1, 2014
Location (City and/or State)
West Toluca Lake, Ca
I think you did a great job in giving your tortoise quality enclosure with what you have to work with right now. And I love hearing about old tortoises that have been in the family for decades.
:) Thank you, yes we love her a lot. Like a living memory.