You're probably planning an elopement, rather than a big wedding, because you want a low-stress wedding experience. But planning an elopement can be difficult when the limitations are only set by you and the possibilities for what you can do with the day are endless! It's difficult to know where to begin, and luckily my couples have exclusive access to a 90+ page elopement planning guide to help them along the way. But if you're in the beginning stages and are looking for even just a peek at something to go from, I'm here to share a checklist that will point you in the right direction.
1.) Hire an elopement planner -or- a photographer who helps guide couples through the planning process (like me)
If you really want this to be a low-stress experience for you and your partner, hire someone who's experienced in planning events in the outdoors, has knowledge of all of the best locations, and can be a support system for you along the way.
2.) Brainstorm about how you want your wedding day to look.
Do you want to relax? Do you want to have a big adventure and plan another activity that day? What do you want the scenery to be like? What type of weather would you prefer? Do you want to invite anyone or do you want it to be a "just us" experience? Sit down and talk about what your best day ever looks like, then pop a ceremony in there somewhere.
3.) Choose a location
If you don't have a planner/photographer helping you out, you'll want to next work on where this is happening. After you decide on the type of scenery, you'll want to take into consideration how far you want to travel to get there, what public lands are options in that distance, how busy that park will be, if you want to walk/hike to get to the ceremony location or if you need somewhere easily accessible, what the weather will be like in the time of year you're getting married, and how much privacy you want to have. You'll also want to note if there are any limitations on locations within the parks where they allow weddings to take place. If you have guests, you may want to choose somewhere that the park allows chairs to be set up or just choose for them to stand. You can also consider renting a vacation home that you can stay in and host the ceremony at if needed (rent directly and not through Airbnb - they don't allow it!)
4.) Apply for Permits
If you're choosing public lands for your ceremony, you'll need to reach out to the organization that runs it, whether it's a national park, state forest, a nature preserve, etc. Call them or email them and ask what the permit process is like and they should send you an email with more information and forms to fill out. Some places don't charge at all, others can charge something like $300+. Keep in mind too that some national parks now require a timed entry to be scheduled in advance, so if you're choosing a location like Glacier or Arches National Park, be sure to ask about that as well.
You'll also want to find out if you're allowed to bring chairs & decorations to this spot, if there are any limitations to the types of flowers you can have in your bouquet, and if you can play music from a speaker (if you want any of those things of course).
5.) Choose your vendors
Vendors that are commonly hired include:
Hair & Makeup Artist
Tour Guide or driver
Make sure that any vendors that need to be following you around that day are experienced in working in the outdoors, that they have the right equipment for it, that they're prepared to hike, and that they are prepared for inclement weather.
6.) Find out marriage license requirements and timeframes
BEFORE you book travel plans, check the marriage license requirements with the jurisdiction you're getting married in. If the state or country requires you to obtain the license 2 days in advance, you'll want to make sure you schedule yourselves to arrive in enough time to pick up the license in person. Your hired officiant should be able to help provide you with this information as well.
If you're getting married out of state or out of the country, you may want to consider having a legal ceremony back home so you don't have to worry about all of the paperwork, requirements, and extra steps needed to get married elsewhere. It's very common and I'd say about 75% of my couples who get married out of state go that route.
7.) Book your travel accommodations
Book flights - prepare to arrive at least 2 days prior to the wedding in case of travel delays. If the location is far from an airport, give yourself plenty of time to drive to your destination from there.
Book a hotel, vacation rental, or a campsite - Think about if you'd like your guests to be in the same house as you, next to where you're staying, or if you'd like privacy. Also think about how these can serve as a backup ceremony space in case of really bad weather outdoors.
Transportation - I usually recommend renting a least a 4 wheel drive vehicle in case you come across any gravel roads, mud, etc. If you want a remote destination, you might need to hire a driver with a Jeep or another 4x4 because a lot of rental companies don't allow you to drive off-road in their vehicles. Note that you can't just hitch a ride with your photographer because their business insurance or car insurance might have an issue with them acting as a driver.
8.) Choose your activities
Think outside of the normal spectrum of things people do on wedding days, and consider planning something fun for you to do! This will be very location-specific, and you'll want to consider how it will fit into your day, but there are many options for experiences you can share together or with your guests.
Off-road UTV tours
A sunset boat ride
A helicopter ride
Wine tasting or a brewery stop
Sitting in a hot tub
Horseback riding ....and more!
9.) Choose your wedding attire
I have a whole section in my guide with tips and tricks for choosing the right outfits and footwear for the day, but to start...
Be mindful of the climate and weather and pack accordingly
You can invest as much or as little into this outfit - it's your day and if you want an expensive dress or suit, buy it!
Note that there's a really good chance that you will get dirty
Bring backup outfits if you don't want to be too dirty
Wear shoes that are practical for the environment
10.) Create a timeline
The beauty of elopements is that you don't have to have your entire timeline planned out by the minute, but you should have some idea of what the day will look like. Especially when you have vendors and activities as a part of the day. Plan plenty of time for stuff, ask your vendors for their input, and plan around the sunrise or sunset if you want the best photos. And just know that the weather might change everything around and that's ok.
If you don't think you'll have enough time for everything you want to do, talk to your photographer about splitting things into 2 days!
11.) Communicate everything with your guests
If you're choosing to have guests, you must fill them in on all of the plans and make sure that they're aware that this isn't a fancy wedding in a clean venue. You're going into the outdoors where there will be bugs, mud, snow, sand, heat, rain, animals, etc. They can dress nice, but they also must be practical.
Inform them about travel information, like where to stay, when they should arrive, send them exact GPS locations for everywhere they're expected to be, and give them earlier times than they actually need to be somewhere in case they get lost or are running behind.
And if you don't want the photos of your family to be of them with their face buried in a phone, tell them in advance that the expectation is for them to be fully present in the ceremony and tech-free. If you want, you can have the officiant tell them too.
Most importantly - if the intention is to have a laid-back, chill day that's adventurous and a little messy, make sure they know this and aren't clutching their pearls when you get a little dirty and things are moving along slowly. This is a low-stress zone and we want their vibes to match the intentions of the day, not kill it.
Sound like a lot?
I know - although there's a lot to think of here, I promise it's not as much as a big wedding. But if you want even less to worry about - hiring the right professionals will make it 10x more enjoyable for you. This day will be beautiful, exciting, and one of the greatest memories you'll have in life, so make sure you have the best partners by your side to ensure its success!
Start planning your life's greatest adventure now with Wild North Weddings! I promise I'll be your elopement lifeline and will document every candid moment so you can remember your wedding story for years to come.
Hey there! I'm Carly D'Angelo - a photographer specializing in documenting weddings and elopements across the U.S. If you love the idea of a wedding with adventure, excitement, and a little romance sprinkled in, let's talk about how I can help you create and capture the wedding day of your dreams!