Creating a Miniature Desert: Terrarium Set-Up Guide and Tips

Imagine your scaly friend slithering, slinking, or scurrying across a warm sandy beach you've designed just for him. This type of desert landscape is exactly what some reptiles crave. After all, you're not the only one who likes to bask in the warmth of a low-humidity, sunny location.

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If this sounds like the setup your dry-climate pet would enjoy, keep reading. Here's what you need to know about building the ultimate desert terrarium for your reptile pet.

What Is a Desert Terrarium?

A desert terrarium is a warmed habitat mimicking a dry, arid environment with low humidity. It's often decorated with rocks, branches, and greenery. Plant varieties housed in a desert terrarium require little water, such as non-spiny cacti and succulents. The substrate, or bedding, on the floor of a desert terrarium mirrors a desert landscape with soft sand, smooth carpet, or moisture-resistant bark.

Which Pets Can Live in a Desert Terrarium?

Despite a love of basking in the sun or under a heat lamp, not all reptiles live in the desert. Some originate in tropical regions and require a humidity-filled tropical terrarium setup to live their best, scaly lives. Other types of lizards and snakes thrive in a dry desert terrarium. Before you purchase a new reptile pet, learn which you're considering: desert or tropical.

If you plan to adopt one of the following, a desert paradise is the best option to keep your reptile pet happy and healthy.

  • Bearded dragons
  • Collared lizards
  • Desert horned lizard
  • Desert tortoise
  • Leopard geckos
  • Mali and ornate uromastyx
  • Kenyan sand boa
  • Schneider's skink
  • Western banded gecko

And many more!

Setting Up Your Own Desert Terrarium

A carefully crafted desert terrarium is a haven for your herp and can also serve as a gorgeous scenic centerpiece for your living room, sunroom, or home office. Here's how to set up the desert terrarium of your pet's dreams.

The Habitat

Your new pet needs a home base. Build a desert environment inside a glass aquarium or terrarium that easily holds and retains heat. The top of the structure should be partially or fully mesh to allow for ventilation and access to the enclosure.

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The Zilla QuickBuild Terrarium with Easy Clean Bedding Tray offers a sleek, modern glass design with unobstructed viewing from many angles. Plus, they set up quickly in about 10 minutes. You can easily access your reptile pet from the front-opening glass door or the double-hinged locking top screen to make playtime a breeze. (And don't worry — both lock securely to ensure your pet stays safely tucked inside.)

This terrarium features a removable bedding tray, making it easy to simply slide the base forward to spot-clean waste and leftover food in your desert terrarium or replace the substrate when needed.

Quick Build Terrariums break down easily for storage, moving the terrarium to a new location or even when you're moving to a new home. (You can now take your terrariums with you instead of giving them away and buying new ones!)

And for hobbyists with several reptile pets, these terrariums are stackable (minus the lights and fixtures) and sturdy, helping you maintain your home's zen vibes and clean lines.

Another fabulous option is the Desert Reptile Starter Kit. This all-in-one solution is ready for gift-giving to a new desert reptile hobbyist. The kit includes the habitat, a screen cover, bulbs, a humidity/temperature gauge, a carpet substrate, and a setup guide. Simply add a UVB bulb (if your species requires it), the Zilla Rapid Sense UV Detecting Decor (to know when to change the bulb), and your reptile, and you're all set!

Now let's transform your habitat into a desert oasis.


When choosing bedding for a desert oasis, think dry and moisture-resistant. Some of the best options include pebbles, rocks, sand, or wood bark that doesn't hold moisture.

For our desert-dwelling friends, try the Desert Blend made from finely crushed English walnut shells since it's similar to sand in texture (but less scratchy!) and non-absorbent. Another option is the Snake & Lizard Litter, made from Aspen wood chips.

Lighting & Heating

Desert reptiles require ample time to sun themselves. Plan to fit the terrarium with a Sahara Desert-like heat and lighting bulb that can create a basking temperature of a hot 95 to 120° Fahrenheit, for up to 12 to 14 hours each day, depending on the type of pet you have.

Live in a chilly home or climate? For more warmth, use an under-tank heat mat or second bulb above the terrarium to get that thermometer to increase.

Please refer to our Ultimate Guide to Lighting and Heating for in-depth details on lighting and heating options, types, and requirements for reptiles.

Environmental Control Accessories

After you set up your new desert terrarium, you need to maintain it. Environmental control accessories such as a thermometer and a humidity gauge can help you learn specifics about your pet's environment at a glance, so you can make adjustments as needed.

Another desert terrarium must-have is a UV sensor. The Zilla Rapid Sense UV Detecting Decor indicates if your pet reptile is receiving the proper UV levels. Proper UV helps reptiles regulate day-night cycles, synthesize vitamin D3, and maintain healthy calcium levels. This functional environmental control accessory also works as stylish decor since it comes in a cool crocodile skull or poplar log design.

Reptile Décor

Now it's time to get creative and channel your inner desert adventurer. Give your pet a place to hide and cool off on top of the desert bedding, such as a Rock Den or Rock Lair. You can also add visual interest by adding smooth stones and branches to climb and a sheet of shale to lounge on.

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And yes, deserts have greenery too! A faux or fresh, non-spiny succulent or cactus adds a pop of color and a realistic vibe to your herp's habitat. Check out the spineless opuntia cacti, dwarf jade, and echeveria plants.

Water Sources

A desert terrarium needs to stay dry-ish, so aim for a low humidity level of 20 to 35 percent (varies based on species) to ensure good skin health and proper moisture intake. Your home's air is likely already in this range naturally.

You can add water to the air (and it's necessary for your pet's diet) by using a small Terrarium Dish for drinking water.

Have more questions? Start a conversation with your local exotic veterinarian with a passion for reptile pets. Establishing this go-to connection is good for your pet and gives you peace of mind, especially if you're new to keeping herps.

When you're ready to shop for the perfect habitat for your desert reptile pet, browse our collection of glass terrariums here.