While many new gecko owners find great joy in putting together a habitat with creative elements, climbing trees, and hiding spots, they often overlook the most important aspect: The right bedding for Leopard Geckos. As these geckos spend most of their time on the ground, choosing the right substrate is the most important decision you have to make once you have a tank.
There are three main factors when choosing a leopard gecko substrate for your tank:
1. Safety: Many substrates, even some marketed as “for geckos” are not actually safe to use for your Leopard Gecko! A classic example is sand, which can lead to impaction, a digestive issue that can be deadly.
2. Ease of maintenance and cleaning: Similarly, you’ll want to think about the effort you’ll have to put in regularly. Paper towels or newspaper might not be very appealing, but need minimal effort, while earthy bedding can be a lot of work. If that work eventually gets neglected, this can lead to health and safety issues, so don’t overestimate your eagerness to regularly clean and maintain here!
3. Enjoyment for your gecko: In their natural habitat, Leopard Geckos like to dig in the ground, burrow, and climb around in their environment. Some bedding and decor can provide this, while other options will lack this type of mental stimulation.
Now let’s look at some of the best substrate options for your Leopard Gecko!
Best substrates for your Leopard Gecko tank
Based on the three factors mentioned above, there is no one clear winner – but you’ll find a substrate that is right for you and your gecko on this list!
#1: Bioactive bedding
Bioactive enclosures are the most complex to set up, but in many ways the best you can offer your gecko. They mimic a natural environment closely with multiple layers of natural material, including live plants, bacteria, and micro-fauna. These tiny animals, like isopods, springtails, and earthworms, work tirelessly to clean the tank, break down waste, and keep the soil healthy – just like in the wilderness.
This type of gecko substrate offers the most interesting and natural bedding for your Leopard Gecko, but is often the most costly to install (around $30 – $100 for a full tank), and requires the most planning. You usually also need to let this type of environment sit for a few weeks (without a gecko in the habitat) until everything has settled in properly, since live fauna and flora is an integral part of this tiny ecosystem.
You can order these pre-mixed if you want to set up your own bio-active bedding quickly and easily. Josh’s Frogs, despite the name, is a great store to browse for that, as they have not only a great variety of blends, but also all the supplies you may need to maintain the substrate.
#2: Simple Blended soil
One step down from bioactive bedding is a simpler, less active mix of material without active micro-fauna. You can buy blended substrate from well-stocked pet shops, or create your own following this recipe: 50:30:20 mix of organic topsoil, play sand and clay.
This substrate can simply be filled into the tank, but should be left in there for around 1-2 weeks to allow it to settle before adding your gecko. After that, you should replace it about once a year, since it doesn’t have a micro-fauna “cleanup crew” to get rid of the gecko’s waste.
#3: Natural tiles & mats
For a much simpler solution, natural stone tiles or slabs as well as mats mimicking these textures offer a low-maintenance bedding that is both visually appealing and interesting for the gecko. They are usually budget-friendly and as easy to install as they are to clean – simply wipe them off with a damp cloth.
However, these tiles and mats should still be deep-washed every 2-4 weeks by removing them and cleaning them thoroughly with soap and water.
Especially tiles or stone slabs also provide warm surfaces, since they hold heat well – but make sure they don’t get too hot!
Another easy solution is reptile carpet – similar to tiles and mats, this bedding needs to be thoroughly washed regularly, but can simply be taken out for deep cleaning. It’s a good idea to buy two sets of carpet, so you can simply switch them out when one needs to be washed. However, carpet should be replaced after around 5 washes.
Overall, it’s a bedding with a focus on ease-of-maintenance, but still more attractive than even simpler solutions like newspaper or paper towels.
Similar to reptile carpet, linoleum is easy to install, and comes in many different styles that can mimic natural environments. However, while this sounds like a good choice, it also often comes with an adhesive bottom side – which is not only sub-optimal for the high-heat and humid environments of a gecko enclosure, but makes cleaning it more difficult, since it can’t be easily taken out like a carpet or tile.
Beyond that, linoleum offers a long-lasting and solid alternative, if you can work around the downsides.
#4: Newspaper or Paper towels
For the simplest possible solution, especially temporarily, paper towels (not toilet paper!) and newspaper can provide bedding for your gecko that is easy to replace (instead of cleaning it).
It can be good for juvenile geckos that create a lot of waste and have a higher risk of impaction from other substrate (like soil or clay). However, it provides minimal stimulation for the gecko, as they cannot dig or burrow in it, and the texture is unlike any natural environment they might feel at home in.
Paper-based bedding should NOT be a permanent solution! For temporary purposes, it can be very practical, but will not be a comfortable environment for your leopard gecko.
Filling the tank
When deciding on a bedding for your Leopard Gecko, don’t forget that you don’t need to decide on a single solution. You can easily mix different substrates in different places – like stone tiles on one side, with a reptile carpet on the other. Some enclosure designs and layouts will make this easy, while others will need a single bedding throughout the entire tank. Experiment and see what works best for you, and provides the best experience for your gecko!
Worst substrates for your Leopard Gecko tank
When shopping for substrate, you may find some options advertised as ideal or usable for your gecko enclosure that are actually not a good choice. Here are some common ones to avoid:
For various reasons, sand is still one of the most popular leopard gecko substrates. Likely because when thinking about geckos living in their natural habitat, many think of desert-like environments. In reality, Leopard Geckos don’t live in sandy environments at all. Instead, they prefer earthy, stony environments with plenty of climbing and hiding options as well as spots to bask and get shade.
The main problem with sand is the high risk of impaction – which can be fatal. This happens when Leopard Geckos feed and accidentally ingest sand while eating their prey, especially worms. That sand cannot be digested and ends up clogging their digestive tract. That’s why you should never use sand for your Leopard Gecko’s habitat, even if it is advertised as safe or recommended for geckos.
Coconut Fiber and Ground Walnut Shell are also often advertised as mimicking natural environments, but have the same risk: their sharp pieces can easily be ingested and cause internal damage and impaction.
Corn cob is another common option that is actually a really bad idea due to the risk of fungal and bacterial growth when it gets wet. This can lead to mouth rot and seriously endanger your gecko. Moss has the same problem – the high humidity makes it the ideal breeding ground for fungal and bacterial growth.
Wood Chips and Gravel might look nice, but tends to be too large for Leopard Geckos. Their sharp edges can harm their little feet, and even scratch and injure their soft bellies. Additionally, small feeder insects can hide in a mass of wood chips or between gravel, making them hard to find or hunt for your gecko.
Making the right choice
Based on everything you’ve read, you probably already have an idea of what bedding will be a good choice for your gecko.
If you’re willing to put a little extra effort into it, a bioactive substrate provides the highest-quality micro-ecosystem and tends to be low-maintenance long-term, but can be really hard to set up. A simple mixed soil bedding can look similar, but is much easier to install. However, without the bioactive ingredients, it doesn’t offer the same benefits and needs to be cleaned more often.
If you prefer inorganic substrate, stone tiles, ceramic tiles, or textured mats for reptiles can be a great natural bedding that’s easy to clean, but provides less stimulation and no way to dig and burrow for your gecko.
Reptile carpets or even newspapers and paper towels can be a quick and easy solution, but offers neither the attractive looks, the natural texture, or the stimulation that other substrates offer.
Don’t be too worried about your choice, though – it’s always possible to change your gecko’s enclosure later. Just make sure to research whatever option you choose and find a solid guide to installing and maintaining it to avoid common mistakes.