Garter snakes have evolved in a way that gives them the best possible chance of survival in the wild. So, they will naturally seek these characteristics in a captive setting. A large part of providing a safe, stress-free habitat for a garter snake is choosing the right type of substrate.
Garter snake bedding options include wood shavings, coconut husk, aspen, and shredded paper. These snakes are most contented in a natural, non-abrasive substrate that’s deep enough for the snake to dig in and burrow through. Since they come from moist environments near rivers and lakes, garter snakes also require a substrate that will maintain humidity without creating a space that is overly damp.
Several trusted brands offer good substrates for garter snakes. These options are ideal for burrowing and really easy to clean. Our preferred choice is Zoo Med Aspen Snake Bedding as it’s ideal for burrowing species of snakes.
Best Substrates for Garter Snakes
Garter snakes spend most of their time crawling around on the ground. These snakes need a substrate that will not be too abrasive on their skin.
Baby garter snakes will do well on newspaper or paper towel substrates. However, adults need a more natural type of bedding. Garter snakes like to burrow, so they need 1-2 inches of substrate in their enclosure.
Avoid any substrate that will get too wet or damp because this could lead to your snake developing a bacterial infection called scale rot. However, garter snakes do need a humid environment (about 40-60% humidity).
Zoo Med Aspen Snake Bedding
This type of snake bedding is made up of shredded aspen wood. It is a non-toxic substance with no extra oils to irritate a snake’s skin or lungs.
This aspen substrate can be used safely with under tank heating elements. With its 191% absorbency rate, this bedding keeps your garter snake’s terrarium relatively dry and free of mildew buildup.
While it can be dusty when first put into the tank, the dust quickly settles so that your snake will not inhale it. This substrate also holds tunnels well for burrowing snakes, so they feel safe in their naturalistic environment.
This type of bedding is odorless itself and holds on to odors from your snake’s waste. It is easy to see feces in the substrate, making spot-cleaning a simple task. It also doesn’t need to be pre-treated for snake mites.
This substrate consists of a mixture of chip sizes with long and short strands of fiber. These chips are cleaned throughout the packaging process, keeping any harmful mites or bacteria out.
ReptiChip’s coconut substrate is an eco-friendly and sustainable product used widely by zoos, nature centers, and major reptile breeding operations.
The coconut bedding helps maintain an ideal humidity level for your snake, just by adding the desired amount of water. It absorbs odors well and provides a good texture for a garter snake to crawl across and burrow through, without being abrasive to your snake’s skin.
This substrate mix is also free of irritating dust and is easy to replace when it’s time to clean the tank.
Unbleached White Paper Bedding
If you prefer paper bedding, but don’t want to shred an old newspaper, Small Pet Select unbleached white paper bedding is a better solution.
The white color of the bedding makes it easier for you to spot waste left behind by your snake or dampness from a spilled water dish. This allows you to quickly clean up messes.
This paper substrate is soft and very absorbent, keeping odor levels down. It contains no bleach or ink from processed paper. The 100% natural, non-toxic material is non-abrasive, which is ideal for a burrowing snake.
Exo Terra Coco Husk
Exo Terra Coco Husk is made from compressed coconut husk that’s gathered from plantations on tropical Asia. This 100% natural substrate is meant for tropical terrariums and works well to maintain the humidity levels a garter snake is used to in the wild.
These coconut chips enable a snake to exhibit its natural digging and burrowing behaviors. If you want to create a naturalistic terrarium setting with live plants inside, this substrate is a great addition to the landscape.
Simply mist the tank with a water bottle sprayer, and the substrate will hold onto just enough moisture to keep the humidity optimal for your snake. While it holds onto the moisture, the top of the substrate remains dry and comfortable for your snake to crawl across.
Zoo Med Repti Bark
This substrate is made from the bark of fir trees. It is a hygroscopic product, which means it absorbs moisture and then releases it to create an environment for a humidity-loving reptile like a garter snake.
Its small brown chip shape provides a natural, tropical appearance with the scent and feel of a forest floor. A unique quality of Repti Bark is that it is a reusable substrate that’s good for up to one year.
Every two to three months, it can be soaked in hot water to restore it to a fresh, clean bark. This bark allows for your snake to express its natural digging and burrowing activities, and it also absorbs waste to keep dampness away from the skin. It does not grow mildew, mold, or fungus.
Garter Snake Bedding To Avoid
Not all substrates are good to put into a garter snake’s enclosure. Some materials can be harmful. These types of bedding should be avoided:
While some snakes come from the desert, sand in a captive enclosure can irritate a snake’s scales. It can also negatively impact a snake’s digestive system if it is accidentally swallowed, leading to impaction.
Cedar or Pine Wood Shavings
While some wood shavings make an appropriate substrate, trees like cedar and pine have extra oils. These oils are toxic for many snakes and can cause respiratory infections.
Gravel does not have the absorbent qualities a snake needs out of its substrate. It is also very hard to clean gravel. Feces and urine get trapped between the rocks, and bacteria multiply in such an environment.
Any excessively dusty substrate can cause respiratory infections when a snake inhales the dust. Avoid sawdust substrate just like you would avoid cedar or pine shavings.
It might seem like a good idea to just collect some dirt from your backyard and provide it for your snake – what could be more natural than dirt?
However, when brought indoors, dirt can contain microorganisms such as mold spores and bacteria that can breed and harm your snake.
How Deep Should Garter Snake Bedding Be?
According to the American Naturalist, substrate helps all snakes, including garter snakes, to regulate a snake’s body temperature.
This is crucial because snakes are cold-blooded (ectothermic), depending on external heat sources to regulate their body temperature.
For burrowing snakes, use at least a two-inch-thick layer of loose substrate. If the layer is any thinner, the snake won’t be able to burrow properly.
How Often Should a Substrate Be Changed?
If you frequently spot-clean your snake’s terrarium, keeping a careful eye out for waste and other damp spots, then you should not need to completely clean out your terrarium as often.
Depending on the type of substrate you choose, you should completely clean out your garter snake’s terrarium once every 3-4 weeks. This includes replacing the substrate, unless you buy a reusable bedding, like Repti Bark.
Make sure that the substrate does not get too damp for your snake’s comfort. If the substrate inside of your garter snake’s terrarium or cage is wet, then clean out the snake’s enclosure right away.
Put your snake in a separate container while you clean its normal tank. When cleaning, make sure that the enclosure is completely dry again before you return your snake to its home.