The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide on How to Plan an Elopement
Let’s skip all the fluff and get right down to it – I am here to help! I felt like the internet was missing a straight to the point step by step guide on how to plan an elopement.
As a specialized elopement photographer who has photographed over 100+ elopements just in Colorado – I have a little inside knowledge. This guide is unlike any other guide you will find out there. Complete with industry secrets, elopement ideas, location scouting tips, guidance on timelines and more! While I wrote this guide with Colorado in mind, the principles and steps can be applied to literally anywhere in the world.
I hope this can help you if you’re feeling lost in the planning phase and not sure what to do next! Keep in mind this is not a one size fits all, but it’s certainly a start. If you have any feedback or interested in working with me, please contact me at email@example.com
This post was updated February 9th, 2023!
Table of Contents
Before we dive in, I must mention to please be mindful of Leave No Trace principles. This is ridiculously important, and often sadly overlooked by many. The ecosystems we are blessed to be able to visit are fragile, and deserve to be treated with respect. If you have more questions on the 7 LNR principles, you can view them here.
Planning an elopement can broken down into 13 steps:
- Imagine your Elopement Day
- Calculate the Cost of your Elopement
- Make your Guest List (or skip this step entirely)
- Pick your Date and Time of Year
- Hire Your Specialized Elopement Photographer & Planner
- Pick Your Ceremony Location
- Hire Any Remaining Wedding Vendors
- Check for Additional Permits for Wedding & Photography
- Research How to Get a Marriage License & Get Legal
- Have a Plan B & C
- Book Your Accommodations & Travel
- Plan your Elopement Timeline
- Prepare for Your Big Day
1.) Imagine Your Elopement Day
You can do this exercise by sitting down together with a bottle of wine or cup of coffee. Each of you will need a piece of paper. Write down at least three things that are most important to you when it comes to your wedding day. The most important is getting married, but besides that, are there other priorities such as photography, florals, having your family there? What means the most to you? Once you have those three things written down, share them with each other.
I know brainstorming these items seems silly, but it’s important for the overall vision of your wedding day! It comes in handy for those who are researching how to plan an elopement, as it will help you prioritize.
2.) Calculate The Cost Of Your Elopement
Here are all main expenses to help give you a running start. It’s very likely you won’t need to budget for every single item, so make sure to factor in the ones that are most important to you.
- Elopement photographer
- Transportation (flights, rental car, parking, tolls, insurance etc)
- Airbnb or a place to stay
- Makeup trial (if any)
- Hair & Makeup Artist
- Décor rentals
- Vow booklets
- Wedding rings
- Permits and fees for marriage license
- Permits and fees for national or state parks
- Additional details such as stationary, invitations, thank you cards
- Food, snacks, drinks
- Dress and/or Tux Rentals/Purchases
3.) Make Your Guest List (Or Skip This Step Entirely)
Start off by writing a draft list of guests you would like to invite. Ideally, less than 30 people is more of an intimate gathering and will allow you to spend time with each of your guests. Personally, I only take on elopements & intimate weddings with 20 guests or less.
Next, think about how you plan to invite your guests. Formal invitations? Email? Word of mouth? Maybe you’re looking for more of a special touch and would prefer stationary designed perfectly to fit your personality and wedding theme?
Here are several FREE wedding planning websites that can help you automate and manage your guest list, send out invites and even make a wedding website (some do charge for use of additional features like a wedding website).
For email invitations only & RSVP tracking, visit: GREENVELOPE
Once you have your location and date, you can send save the dates or personally contact your family members to let them know about your wedding day
Ensure your photographer gets a copy of every single bit of stationary, these small items can truly help tell a story when it comes to photographing the details of your elopement day
4.) Pick Your Date and Time of Year
This is when your elopement finally starts to feel official! If you don’t already have a date in mind, then I suggest choosing a weekday during your preferred season if possible. If it’s a popular location, then opting for a weekday often means more seclusion. Believe it or not, national parks can turn into a literal traffic jam (I like to call them animal traffic jams, as they are often caused by wildlife). Rocky Mountain National Park alone received $4.5 million visitors in 2018.
5.) Hire Your Specialized Elopement Photographer & Planner
I know it seems a little crazy to hire a photographer for your elopement day before you even have a location, but trust me. Find yourself a local elopement photographer that specializes in elopements so they can help you find the perfect location, plan your timeline, pick the perfect accommodations and be your local guide. The good news? This is my speciality.
6.) Pick Your Ceremony Location
Time for the fun part: choosing your ceremony location! Remember in step 1 when I had you imagine your elopement day? Take a look again. How is the weather? What is the landscape around you? Are there trees? Lakes? Tall mountains or buildings? Is it sunny and warm, or snowy? Is it at sunrise or sunset? In the middle of the day on the beach? There is no wrong answer here. Once you have your criteria, start researching online for areas that may have all of those characteristics.
If you have hired me as your elopement photographer, then right after booking I will provide a questionnaire that asks all the right questions to help me find you the perfect spot for your elopement. I put A LOT of work into my location research guides. It will include everything you need to know about each location so you can make an informed decision on where you decide to elope.
If you’re wanting to do a little research yourself, I suggest downloading the desktop version of Google Earth Pro. This tool is hands down my favorite tool to use when exploring. You can view the exact moment the sun will rise and set, and even see how it falls across the landscape. If you’re looking to read your vows during sunrise or sunset, you can calculate the exact time to get the most supreme lighting. In addition, you can view images taken by other users at that location, and place a marker anywhere in the world to see a 3D mockup of how the landscape looks (keep in mind trees are not rendered, but appear flat).
Couple 3D Google Earth Pro with Alltrails and the amount of information available at your fingertips should have you ready to prepare for any adventure. Download the pro version of Alltrails to help guide you through the forest and keep you on the trail, as you can use it offline to ensure you don’t get lost.
7.) Hire Your Remaining Wedding Vendors
Here are the typical vendors that I most commonly see:
- Hair & Makeup Artist
- Private Chef
- Decor Rentals
8.) Check For Additional Permits for Weddings & Photography
If you are getting married in a national forest or protected land, then a permit will likely be required for photography and/or the ceremony. I highly suggest researching your ceremony location, so you aren’t surprised by any rangers. In addition to going by the book, you can typically ask National Park rangers questions about photo locations and how to get away from the crowds. Typically, your elopement photographer will guide you on any restrictions or additional fees, but it’s always best to call a park ranger and find out for yourself.
9.) Research How To Get A Marriage License
Every state/country is different. It’s very important you plan your elopement way ahead of time when it comes to researching the laws and requirements before making any official booking plans or reservations.
In Colorado, you can self-solemnize, and a witness is not required. This means you do not need an officiant to sign your marriage license and get married in the state of Colorado. In fact, you can climb a mountain and do it all by yourself, or you can bring along your dog and put their paw print on the witness line of your marriage license! This is great news, as it allows you to be very creative in the time and place in which you finally put pen to paper to make your commitment to one another official.
For more information on US state laws regarding marriage licenses.
10.) Have a Plan B and Plan C
It’s never a bad idea to have a backup plan, especially if you are having an outdoor ceremony. Mother nature can be unpredictable, and it’s not uncommon for elopements to be moved to a different spot due to overcrowding, weather, or other potential hazards. It’s never a bad idea to have a plan B and C in case of crowds, last-minute road or park closures, weather, wildlife, or other unsafe conditions.
11.) Book Your Travel & Accommodations
Don’t be afraid to get creative when it comes to choosing your accommodations! You’re going to want a place to stay that is close to your ceremony location and has great lighting. Photographers typically love any location that has big open windows and is void of clutter.
Why not book a modern a-frame cabin in the woods, or something with beautiful views that’s going to make you feel a little spoiled? It is your wedding day after all!
There are a ton of unique AirBNB’s and short term rentals that you can take advantage of, but be sure to start looking around 8 months to a year in advance as places can book up quickly depending on the time of year and location.
12.) Plan Your Elopement Timeline
While everyone’s timeline will be different, here is a rough draft of all the items you may want to include if you need help on how to elope in Colorado or anywhere else in the world. I’ve even included the minimum length of time to provide for each activity.
If you hired a hair and makeup artist, then please allow a minimum of 1.5 hours for the stylist to do their part. I recommend asking your stylist ahead of time to get an estimate. During this time, your photographer will likely be collecting photos of the scene and your details such as dress, flowers, stationery, meaningful items, rings, etc.
Give yourself at least another 20 to 40 minutes to get dressed, do not feel rushed!
I always tell couples to take at least half an hour for this moment. If you choose to have a first look, that moment when you see each other in your wedding clothes for the very first time can be a big deal. Don’t rush it. Take a few moments to really soak it in, and take a few photos.
Formal Photos with Friends and Family
If you brought along friends or family, the best time to capture photos of you together would be right before the ceremony. If you decided not to do the first look, this will likely take place after the ceremony.
If you’re hiking to your elopement location, then please be aware it typically takes about 45 – 60 minutes per mile to reach your destination. This depends on the elevation gain, how many breaks you take, and if you stop for photo opportunities.
TIP: If you are having a sunset ceremony, then I would suggest spending a minimum of 30 – 60 minutes for couple’s photos before the ceremony, as you may lose all the light after (you can always take more, right)?
However, you wish! Maybe you’re celebrating by drinking champagne and hiking down a mountain, or dancing around the campfire with your closest friends and family. There are so many options when it comes to celebrating the fact that YOU’RE MARRIED! All I can do is provide recommendations.
List of activities and fun things to do on your elopement day
- Have a meal with your family and friends at a delicious local eatery
- Play yard games and drink beer at a local Colorado brewery on the river
- Order a private chef catered meal to your AirBnb
- Take a Jeep tour to epic and secluded mountain locations
- Take a helicopter tour
- Hike together
- Backpack together, build a campfire and lay under the stars
- Dance around the campfire at your Airbnb
- Ski or snowboard down a mountain
- Rent a canoe and take adorable pictures (please do this)
- White water rafting, paddleboarding, or any water activities
- Find a local hot spring
- The possibilities are endless!
- The best lighting occurs about 1 – 2 hours before sunrise, and 1 – 2 hours before sunset. This is typically called the ‘golden hour’, where the light is extra soft and comes from a direction that creates beautiful shadows. Tall mountains like the ones in Colorado may add an hour onto this time, it’s best to check the tools from step #5 to calculate the exact timing of your elopement location.
- It’s best to elope on a weekday to avoid the crowds, this is important for popular locations.
- Allow time for travel, and plan for the worst. When you have your wedding in a forest or on top of a mountain, you must embrace what mother nature throws at you. A little rain and dirt never hurt anyone!
13.) Prepare For Your Big Day
Ok, it’s finally here! YAY! Make sure you bring along all the small items and details to the area where you will be getting ready. This includes rings, vow booklets, flowers, stationery, wedding clothes, and any other meaningful items that you want to be photographed. Having them ready in a box for your photographer will make them the happiest person ever, I promise.
Don't Forget To Plan Your Elopement Ceremony
This detail can be easily overlooked, but I think it’s extremely important you both spend time to finalize how the ceremony will work. I’ve written a few free elopement resources just for this, and you can view them below!
My Best Tip When It Comes to Elopement Planning:
The best tip I have for the day of your elopement is to relax and go with the flow. Truly soak in every moment and take a ‘mental picture’ (for all you Office fans out there) of the high points.
Hopefully, you made it to the end of this guide, and found at least a few tips that can help guide you through how to plan an elopement! Don’t forget the reason why you decided to elope in the first place: to focus on the two of you and your lifetime commitment to one another. photographed. Having them ready in a box for your photographer will make them the happiest person ever, I promise.
Don’t forget to save these how to plan an elopement covers to your Pinterest Board for the future!
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