And you are doing it in the best way possible! Choosing to have an intimate and meaningful wedding will be the best decision you ever make, I promise. You are ditching the stress of a big wedding day production, and saying no to society’s expectations. It’s going to be absolutely incredible.
As an intimate wedding + elopement photographer, I am so passionate about helping couples have an incredible, unique experience on their elopement day. That is why I decided to create this Ultimate Elopement Planning Guide, to help make the process a little easier.
This guide will cover everything you need to do from start to finish to plan your dream elopement day, in 10 actionable steps.
What does it mean to elope?
The term elopement can be confusing since there is no clear definition of what it means. An elopement is a day that is a true reflection of your relationship, that emphasizes what is most important to you, surrounded by the people that matter most. An experience, rather than a big production filled with stressful checklists and traditions.
It can be as simple, or adventurous as you want it to be. You can elope in a place that is meaningful to you, or a place you have never been before. It can be just the two of you, or all the people that mean the most to you.
Eloping doesn’t have to be about having a “cheap” wedding, or family drama. Although yes, it’s a great way to save on things that don’t really matter to you, eloping is about so much more than just the money. It’s about having a an experience that is worth more than any dollar amount. Maybe you end up spending the same amount of money that you would have on a traditional wedding, but instead of spending the majority of your budget catering to 100+ guests, you get to have the trip of a lifetime exploring an incredible place that you can’t believe is actually real, with your favorite 10 people.
How long does it take to plan an elopement?
A lot of people think that the planning process for an elopement is much easier than a traditional wedding. Although you might not be making seating charts for 100+ people, there are still plenty of details that you will need to consider. Don’t worry though, elopement planning is actually FUN. You are planning one of the best days of your life after all.
I always recommend couples to start planning at least 8 – 10 months out if possible. Although it is totally possible to plan an elopement in a short amount of time, the more time you give yourself, the less stressful the process will be. This gives you enough time to book flights at a great price, and find the best lodging. This will also give you enough time to book your favorite vendors.
10 Steps to Planning Your Dream Elopement:
Step 1: Craft a vision
Start to create a vision of what your dream elopement day might look like from start to finish. During this stage of the planning process try not to let logistics and details get in the way. We will get to that stuff later. This is your time to dream big. No idea is too farfetched, or unrealistic. Envision what a perfect day would look like to you both, and go from there. Think about the things that are most important to you, and what this day means to you. Get inspiration from places like Pinterest, Instagram, blogs, Google Maps etc. to see what speaks to you. Make a mood board to get a visual idea of the vibe you are drawn to. Turn it into a date night and have fun dreaming together.
Things to consider when crafting a vision:
Who will be there ?
Will it be just the two of you, or do you envision your ceremony surrounded by family and friends? Don’t worry, you don’t need to make an official guest list yet, just consider what feels right to the two of you.
How are you spending the day?
Do you envisioning yourself adventuring, and experiencing something new and incredible together? Or maybe you see a day spent relaxing and enjoying the simple moments.
What will you be wearing?
Do you see yourself in a stylish bohemian style dress draped in fringe, or maybe something more simple with chiffon that catches perfectly in the wind?
Step 2: Choose your elopement location
I’m a huge believer that where you choose to get married is important. The place you exchange your vows and commit your lives to one another holds so much significance. Choosing your elopement location is one of the most important and exciting decisions you will make during this entire process. I believe a good elopement location is a place that allows you to have an experience that you are fully present in the moment for.
First consider what you are looking for in a location. Do you want a place that is meaningful to your relationship, or do you want to experience somewhere new together. Maybe you want to elope in your childhood backyard, or your favorite hiking trail. Or maybe you want to elope on the edge of a cliff in Greece overlooking the ocean, or in front of an incredible waterfall in Iceland.
If you want to elope somewhere you’ve never been before but don’t know where to begin, start by considering what type of scenery you want. What kind of scenery takes your breath away, and makes you feel something? Do you want epic mountains, glaciers, redwood forests, epic foggy coastlines, desert, red rocks, tropical islands, warm turquoise water, or maybe something else?
Consider your relationship, and the things you love to experience most together. Do you love to hike? Consider backpacking to an incredible, remote alpine lake. Maybe you love road trips? What about spending a week driving around an entire country experiencing the diverse landscape.
Do you need a venue?
I’m sure at this point you already know the answer is no! Traditional venues are seriously expensive! Luckily mother nature has some pretty incredible venues, practically for free. You can get married in a national park, an Airbnb, VRBO, public lands, campgrounds etc. The options are endless. The important thing to remember is that you can pretty much make any space work.
Things to consider when choosing a location:
The best elopement locations will give you privacy and seclusion. If you dream of eloping somewhere that is very popular (like a national park) consider choosing a weekday, or off season when you will find less crowds. A good photographer will also be able to help scout a perfect secluded location.
High and low season:
Most locations have high and low seasons, which can impact how secluded your spot will be, as well as local pricing. With a bit of research you should easily be able to tell when the high and low seasons are.
This is an important factor when choosing an elopement location, especially if you plan to have guests that might have trouble on certain terrain. There are almost always options with incredible views that don’t require any hiking, though usually these places end up being more crowded.
There is always a chance of running into weather problems with an outdoor elopement. Try to find a few back up locations in case of bad weather or a natural phenomenon. I recommend leaving some room for flexibility in your schedule, and be prepared to change plans if need be.
Step 3: Pick a date
Start reaching out to your most important vendors to check with their availability. Find a date that works with those vendors, and everyone who is joining you. Check on lodging to be sure there is availability for the timeframe you plan to be there.
Things to consider when picking a date:
Have you always envisioned a Fall wedding, or do you love the idea of eloping among the wild flowers in Spring? Is there a particular season that you love most?
Best time of year/ weather:
sider how the weather changes from month to month at your location, and what the best time of year to visit is. Seasons exist differently everywhere, so be sure to do you research.
Is there a particular date or month that is special to your relationship, or holds any significance?
Holidays and local events:
I always recommend doing a quick check for any holidays or local events happening that might affect your time there.
Weekend vs. a weekday:
Weekdays are almost always less crowded than weekends. Consider eloping on a weekday to avoid the crows and have a more private and secluded experience.
Step 4: Book your photographer
Call me biased, but I think photography is one of the most important parts of your wedding day. I’m a photographer, so of course I think that, but seriously! These photos are one of the only tangible things you will have left over from your wedding day.
You deserve your story to be told in a way that’s authentic to who you are, in a way that makes you FEEL. These photos are so much more than just for a post on Instagram. These are the photos you will be showing your grandchildren when you are old and wrinkled, and I truly believe you will never regret investing in those memories.
Not only that, but an elopement photographer wears many hats, and will be able to help with SO many things beyond just capturing your day. A good photographer will be able to help with location scouting, planning, travel logistics, permits, timeline creation, and a million other things. Trust me, hiring an awesome photographer is so important, and truly invaluable.
Elopement photographers typically start booking weddings 6 months to a year in advance, so booking your photographer should be one of the first things you do. Because elopement photographers are so involved in the planning process it is super helpful to book them early on.
To book your photographer you will typically need to know the general location and date for your elopement. You don’t have to know the exact spot for your ceremony, because a good photographer will help you nail down those details, but you will likely need to know the general spot since most photographers offer unique pricing for different types of travel.
If you have no idea where you want to elope I recommend you still reach out to your photographer. Most have tons of great ideas and will be able to help you get on the right track. I keep a list of incredible elopement locations to recommend to my couples if they don’t know where to begin.
Step 5: Research logistics
Now that you know the overall vision for your day, and the general location for the elopement, and the date picked out, it’s time to start diving into logistics. If you are having trouble with this don’t worry, you can always hire knowledgeable experts to help you. As an elopement photographer, this is the stage of the planning process that I typically help the most with.
Things to consider when researching logistics:
Permits and regulations:
You will want to look into permits and regulations for your elopement location. A lot of national parks require you to purchase a permit to have a wedding within the park. The fee is usually a couple hundred dollars, but that varies from park to park. Most public lands also require you to purchase a permit. Some parks also have designated ceremony locations, so you will want to look into that.
Local marriage laws:
overwhelmed with the logistics and paperwork of getting a marriage license in your chosen spot, consider completing the paperwork at home instead, before your actual elopement date.
Now it’s time to make an official guest list. This is typically one of the hardest parts of the planning process. Try to keep the guest list short. Pick a number and stick to it. Don’t feel obligated or pressured to invite anyone, and just remember, this is YOUR day. Some national park ceremony locations limit the number of guests you can have in attendance, so be sure to keep that in mind.
Step 6: Plan some fun activities!
This is the fun part! Now you can really dive in to what day of activities you might want to do. This is a great way to create a unique and personal elopement that you will love every second of. Think about how you want to spend your day, and what’s meaningful to you. Your elopement day can be as adventurous or laid back as you want it to be.
Wherever you are eloping, there are probably endless options of things to do, whether you want to spend the day taking a helicopter tour to a gorgeous glacier, or maybe take a mini road trip and explore the diverse country you are eloping in, or even just spend the evening barbecuing with your family and dancing around a campfire. Whatever you choose to do, make it unique to your relationship.
Start to think about how many days you want to plan for! Your elopement activities don’t have to be jam packed into one single day. They can take course over two days, or even a full week. Maybe you want to do a multi-day backpacking trip to an
incredible remote waterfall, or a week long road trip. Make a weekend of it with beach volleyball, family barbecues, and game nights etc. Most elopement photographers offer packages with more than just one day of coverage for this reason!
Make sure you know how to prepare for the weather you could encounter on any activities you might want to do. For example, even you choose to jeep to a high alpine lake above tree line in the middle of summer, still be prepared for freezing temperatures and intense wind!
Step 7: Create a day of timeline
Once your elopement vision starts to take shape you can make a list of all the experiences you want to have. Once you have a general outline of how the day might flow, it’s time to put it all together and make an official timeline.
Give yourself plenty of time throughout the day so you aren’t stressed, or rushing. Work with your photographer to plan around lighting, crowds, and other factors that might affect your day. I always help create timelines with my couples.
Remember, this is YOUR day. It’s easy to fall into the trap of what a wedding day should look like. There is no right or wrong way to plan an elopement. Do things how you want to do them. For example: does the idea of reading your emotional vows in front of family and friends make you cringe? Plan a private vow reading before the ceremony! Make the day unique to you!
Things to consider when creating your timeline:
Where do you want to get ready?
Getting ready is such an amazing part of the day. There are so many emotions, and anxious jitters leading up to the big moment. You’ll want to consider if you want to get ready together or separately. Be intentional about where you get ready. If you are in some crappy hotel bathroom filled with clutter, makeup bags, and trash left over from breakfast it will stress you out. I recommend getting ready somewhere with lots of windows for soft natural light. Have your thoughtful wedding details placed out, and your dress hanging in the window, or maybe the front porch.
How do you want to spend your morning?
Do you want to go on a morning walk together to a local coffee shop, maybe a quick dip in the ocean before you get ready, or sleep in and make breakfast together.
Do you want to do a first look?
This is a super personal decision, and there is no right or wrong answer! Having a first look is a great way to build up the anticipation and emotions of finally seeing each other on your big day. If you do want to do a first look, consider where you might want to do it.
Make sure to take into account the amount of time needed to get from place to place when making your timeline. I always recommend to give yourself a little extra wiggle room just in case!
Morning or evening ceremony:
Consider whether you would prefer a morning or evening ceremony. Lighting plays a huge role when creating your elopement day timeline. Typically ceremonies held in the morning will be right around sunrise, and typically ceremonies held in the evening will be a few hours before sunset. There are also many other factors to consider such as the weather, location, and the day of activities. Talk to your photographer if you aren’t sure when to have your ceremony.
Sunset photos somewhere awesome:
Lighting for photos is always very best around sunrise and sunset. It’s always a good idea to plan to take bridal photos somewhere epic around this time. This is something your photographer will definitely help you out with!
Food and drinks:
Don’t forget to eat on your wedding day! Maybe you want to eat at a Michelin star restaurant, or maybe have a family potluck and smore’s station. Maybe a private mountain top picnic, or a beachside fruit platter. Maybe you want to visit the local food trucks and try one of each!
Reception / post ceremony activities:
Whether you are having guests at your elopement or not, it’s always great to celebrate your marriage! Whether you want to set up string lights in the trees and a Persian rug dance floor, drink local beers and play board games, or take a dip in the hot springs and star gaze with some champagne in hand.
8:00 – 10:00 am
Spend the morning with family and friends (cook breakfast, morning walk, relax + hangout)
Family photos and couples sunset portraits around ceremony location
6:00 – 6:30
Drive back to Airbnb
6:30 – 11:00 pm
Post ceremony activities (dinner, speeches, dancing, drinking, campfire etc.)
Step 8: Finalize the ceremony
Decide if you want to have a pre-determined ceremony spot, or if you want to take a hike and choose it spontaneously in the moment. Decide the overall structure of the ceremony, and how you want it to flow from start to finish. The great thing about eloping is that your ceremony can be done however you want. Write vows that are unique and personalized to your relationship. There is no right or wrong way to do this! Do what feels right to you.
Things to consider when finalizing the ceremony:
Are there any important traditions you would like to include in your ceremony, such as candle lighting, sand pouring etc.? Or anything unique to your relationship, or the culture of your elopement location that you might want to include?
Do something special:
Consider possibly planning a special surprise for your person, like gifts, a song, handwritten letters etc.
Post ceremony celebrations:
Celebrate your ceremony! Many couples choose to have a unique celebration immediately following their kiss, such as confetti, champagne pop, sparklers, flower petals etc.
Who do you want to officiate your wedding? If you are having an officiant, consider having someone you know do it. This can be so much more personal and special than just hiring someone to say the same thing to you that they say to everyone else.
Step 9: Start booking
Now that you have done the research, and created an official day of timeline, it’s time to start booking your other vendors, flights, lodging etc.!
Keep an eye on flight prices so you are ready to book when there is a good deal! The best tool for watching prices by far is Google Flights. Once you know your travel dates you can also use apps like Hopper, and Skyscanner, that will tell you when a good time to book will be.
Typically the longer you wait to book lodging the less options you will have, and the higher the prices will be. I recommend booking lodging as soon as you know your travel dates, and itinerary. It’s always nice to splurge on staying somewhere super cool, and the sooner you book, the better chance you will have of booking your dream lodging! Also keep in mind how much room you will need, where you will be getting ready, and how many guests you will have. I am a huge fan of Airbnb for this reason! Not only can you find incredible luxury homes for a great price, but you will likely be able to find something to accommodate everyone. This will feel so much more connected and intimate than being separated by hotel walls and room keys.
Rental car/ transportation:
Again, keep in mind how many people you need to accommodate, as you may need to book some sort of shuttle service.
Hair + Makeup Artist:
This is not always necessary, but if it’s something you want then there should be plenty of local artists in your elopement location area! I’ve seen plenty of brides do their own hair and makeup as well, so that is always an option. If you do decide to hire one, be sure to try to find someone who has experience working with adventurous brides!
Florals seriously make all the difference, even if you just get a simple bouquet! This is a great way to add a gorgeous touch to your elopement day, and I always recommend them. Florals can be so personalized to you and even the location you are getting married, which is why I love them so much.
Be sure to research local marriage laws in the area of your elopement to know what is required for your ceremony. You can always consider taking care of the legal paperwork back at home, either before or after your ceremony, if it is too complicated in the area you choose to elope. This is something that is very common for couples having destination elopements to do. The day you get married is the day you say your vows and commit your life to your person, not the day you sign on the dotted line!
Planning a wedding, especially a destination wedding, can be extremely difficult and stressful. Not only will a planner eliminate all of that stress, but they will also create stunning customized ceremony and tablescape to give your elopement that magic touch. Just because you are choosing to elope doesn’t mean you have to skimp on all the pretty things that make your wedding day unique and special to you. This is a great way to make your day reflect your relationship and your story. Imagine getting married floating down a river on raft draped in gorgeous florals, or in front of an incredible wooden arch at the top of a mountain. This is the kind of experience a great planner can create for you.
Step 10: Start buying
Dress + Suite:
When looking for a wedding dress, I recommend finding something comfortable. There are so many gorgeous options that you won’t be stuffed into, feeling like you can barely bend over. Find a dress that makes you feel like a freaking rockstar, but still allows you to move freely. The BEST dresses are the ones that can flow and catch the wind. This will create the most epic, dramatic photos.
Also note, if you are having an outdoor elopement, just know, your dress is gonna get a little dirty. Maybe more than a little, and that’s totally okay! A dirty dress is a good sign of an incredible adventure. Tulle and lace tend to catch dirt and leaves the most, so if you think that is something that will bother you, it might be better to avoid those materials.
If you don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a designer dress there are plenty of websites that have gorgeous dresses that would work great for an elopement.
Again, comfort is key here. Luckily there are so many cute options that won’t give you blisters and make your day miserable. My favorite for brides is a pair of boots with a slight heel. You can still feel dressed up while also being able to adventure and explore. If you do want to go with a pair of heels, bring a backup pair of shoes just in case! A lot of time shoes aren’t visible in photos anyways, because the dress will be covering your feet.
No matter where you are eloping, there is always a chance of running into slightly cold weather. If you know the weather is going to be cold consider getting a long sleeve dress, faux fur cape, scarf, gloves, earmuffs, coat etc. You can also get a discreet pair of skin colored thermal leggings to wear under your dress if need be.
Jewelry + Accessories:
Veils, capes, bridal headpieces, boho hats, flower crowns, statement jewelry, fur coats and shawls, customized bridal jackets etc. are a great way to personalize your elopement day.
Just because you are eloping doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add personal touches to your day. There are so many meaningful things you can do, and so many cool décor options that will give your day that extra special touch.
Personal vow books
Alter back drops/ Arch
Other personalized styling / decor
Now it’s time to have an incredible elopement day!
After all the planning and preparation, it’s finally your big day. The day that you commit your life to your person. Enjoy every second of it, and soak it all in.
Don’t focus on the small details and allow yourself to have fun and go with the flow! No wedding day ever goes completely according to plan, and that’s okay! All that matters is that you are marrying your soul mate, and having an incredible, unforgettable experience. It’s going to be the best day of your life. No matter what you choose to do for your elopement, it is going to be perfect for you.
Hey there, I'm Carissa! I’m a lover of adventure, and exploring new places. I specialize in photographing elopements in the San Juan mountains of Colorado, the western US, and international locations all over the world.
My goal is to help couples plan connected, meaningful elopement experiences in the most breathtaking landscapes on earth, and document the story of it all. Whether it's a glacier in Alaska, a waterfall in Iceland, or a cliffside in Moab, I'm ready to document your adventure.
CARISSA MARIE PHOTOGRAPHY
Intimate wedding & elopement photographer, for adventurous couples that want to ditch traditions and do things their way.
Based in the San Juan mountains of Colorado, and traveling worldwide.