Maybe you were sitting there, eyes bleary from looking up venues in your area, brain fried from debating seating charts with your parents.
Or maybe you’re dreading being the center of attention for an entire day, and the thought of reading your vows in front of 100 people sends shivers down your spine.
No matter the reason, if you’re wondering if this traditional wedding thing isn’t for you, and thinking maybe you should have a small ceremony instead, this guide will show you how to elope! For a lot of couples, it can be difficult to know where to start, what to do, and who to turn to for advice. So, as an elopement photographer who’s helped lots of couples plan their unique, adventurous wedding day, I’m here to support anyone who wants to break the mold and let go of all those expectations and pressures that seem to pile on as soon as you get engaged - and I’m also here to share all my tips and tricks in this step by step guide that will teach you all about how to elope!
Make the Decision
The first step to planning an elopement - decide to elope! It can definitely be a hard decision to make, because a lot of couples fear that they’ll be letting down their families, or the people in their life.
Eloping isn’t what it used to be - so don’t think of this as a quick marriage at city hall that’ll be over in ten minutes. An elopement is about being intentional in how you celebrate your commitment to one another, and making sure you’re tying the knot in a way that actually reflects who you are as a couple. So if throwing a big party doesn’t feel right, and a small ceremony in a beautiful place does, you should probably elope! And remember, this decision is yours - because you deserve to get married the way you want to.
Make a Guest List… or Don’t!
Eloping doesn’t mean you can’t have any guests– but a guest-less elopement is definitely an option! You get to decide how to elope, so if you feel like a private ceremony, just the two of you, is right for you, skip this step! But, if there are relatives or friends who you can’t imagine your day without, make a list of people you want to invite. As long as they’re on board and support you in your decision, an elopement with guests can feel just as meaningful and intimate.
After you’ve thought about whether or not you’ll be inviting guests, make a plan for how you’re going to break the news that you’re eloping! Some couples make the announcement right away, while others prefer to wait until after the knot is tied. If you anticipate a lot of backlash for your decision, it may be best to keep things under wraps, or to tell just a few people - people who know how to keep a secret. But, telling your loved ones that you’re eloping ahead of time can give you the opportunity to explain your decision and get them on board. Even if your family and friends aren’t coming to the ceremony, they can share your excitement as you navigate through the elopement planning process! And better yet, they can even contribute something special to your elopement day like a video to watch or letters to read.
Now that you’ve got the basics down - deciding to elope and deciding who will be there - you can start dreaming! Think about what you want to do on your elopement day, and don’t hold back!
Your elopement day should be an experience, so consider what would make this the best day ever - hiking, rock climbing, stargazing, kayaking, a picnic in the backyard…. An elopement is whatever you want it to be, so no idea is too crazy, and no adventure is too small! You can make a list of things you’d like to try together, or things that you already love doing. Dream big - this is all about brainstorming!
Make a Budget
While elopements are typically less pricey than weddings, you’ll still need to invest! You can choose how to elope, which means you get to decide what you want to spend money on. Talk about it with your partner, decide what’s important to both of you, and how much you’re willing to spend.
Make sure to consider travel, lodging, vendors, elopement attire, as well as smaller expenses like a marriage license or park permit.
Set a Date
Now, it’s time to decide on a date for your elopement ceremony! At this point, it’s okay if you aren’t 100% sure on just one day - a lot of eloping couples are flexible with their elopement date, and will contact a photographer before they settle on a date. This gives you more flexibility when it comes to booking the elopement vendors you want, as you can work together to find a date that will work for them, and you!
But it’s good to at least choose a time frame, whether it be a month or a season, for your elopement. If you want to hike on your elopement day, summer would be the best time to ensure higher elevation areas are snow-free and trails are open. However, if you’re dreaming of a skiing elopement, you’ll of course want to elope in winter!
I always recommend that couples elope on a weekday - parks and outdoor areas are always more crowded on the weekends, so just by eloping while more people are at work, you’ll cut down a lot on crowds! Watch out for holidays and three day weekends, as these bring out more people as well.
Pick a Location
When it comes to choosing a location, I recommend starting by thinking about the logistics. How far are you willing to travel? Do you want your elopement to be a flight, or a car ride away from home? Is leaving the country, or the state, realistic? This may narrow down your location options, or leave you with endless amazing possibilities!
Next, think about what kind of scenery you’d like to see on your elopement day. Do you see yourself surrounded by mountain peaks, or sitting by the ocean? Do you want the lush green forests, or is the vast open desert calling your name? Work backwards to figure out where you should elope by deciding what you want to see, then think of places that match that vision!
At this point, it’s okay if your location is just a general location - a country (if it’s outside the US), a state, or a national park is usually all you need when you book your photographer - and they can help with the details!
Some resources and inspiration to get you started:
Hire an Elopement Photographer
And speaking of photographers, I recommend booking your elopement photographer early on! They’ll be able to help with a lot of the planning for your elopement, making the rest of these steps way easier. Here are some tips to help you find the right photographer.
Looking for Elopement Photographers
A lot of wedding photographers will also take on elopements - but someone who specializes in elopements will be able to help you a lot more, as they’ll be the expert on how to elope, and all the things you need to know for an adventure elopement! An elopement photographer is someone who has experience not only with the “getting married” part of the elopement, but is also knowledgeable when it comes to safely exploring the outdoors. They will also be your guide throughout the planning process - which includes finding the perfect (beautiful but not too popular) spot for you to get married, making sure you have the right permits, sending over vendor recommendations, giving you tips and advice (like how to pack a dress on a hike), and overall, they’ll be the expert on how to elope! So, look for photographers who specialize in what you need - an elopement! You can search Google and Instagram, looking for photographers who are in the area you’re eloping in. However, most elopement photographers do this because we love to travel - so don’t be afraid to look at photographers who aren’t local, too! You might find the perfect fit who is willing to meet you wherever your adventure takes you.
What to Look For
So, what makes one elopement photographer different from another? How do you choose? The first thing you’ll probably see is their photos - so of course, make sure you like them! Make sure to look on their website, and find galleries that include photos from the entire elopement day. After a while, you’ll likely get a feel for what kind of photography you’re drawn to.
The next step is to check out the photographer - read their Instagram bio and their about me page, and decide if this seems like someone you’d get along with. You’ll be spending all day together, and the day is a pretty important one!
Schedule Phone Calls
No matter how well written their Instagram captions are, it’s hard to get a complete feel for someone’s personality just from reading words on a screen! So, when you have a list of a few photographers, send them an email inquiring about your elopement. Ask any questions you have about the process, and see which photographers sound like a good fit! Then, make sure to schedule a phone call, or a Facetime, or a coffee date - this will be the best way to get to know each other, and ensure that it’s a good fit. After you’ve decided on a photographer, agreed on a date and general location, they should send you a contract - and you’re booked!
Hire the Rest of Your Vendors
Most elopement photographers will help you with the planning process - so ask them for a list of vendor recommendations! A great team of elopement vendors will be the best thing you can do for yourself when it comes to your elopement day - they’ll take all the stress off of you, so you can focus on what really matters - being in love, and getting married in an amazing location. Every elopement is different, so decide ahead of time which vendors you’ll need.
An elopement planner is super helpful to have - they’ll handle bookings, logistics, and all the little details that you may not have thought of when it comes to eloping.
Depending on where you’re getting married, you may or may not be required to have an officiant. Most states do require one, with Colorado being the most popular exception. You can hire an elopement officiant who will join you on your adventure, or you can have a friend or family member get ordained! Many elopement photographers are ordained as well (myself included!)
Gorgeous florals are such a great addition to any elopement - whether it’s bouquets, boutonnieres, or an arbor for your ceremony.
Videos can capture the memories of your elopement day in a way that photos just can’t - so consider hiring an elopement videographer to join you!
Hair and Makeup
Just because your ceremony is small doesn’t mean you should pass up this opportunity to get glammed up and pampered! A hair and makeup artist who is experienced with elopements will be able to ensure that your ‘do and your face stay put throughout the day, even while you’re out in the elements.
Check Permit Info
A lot of parks and outdoor sites require a permit to have a ceremony. Yes, even if it is just the two of you! You certainly don’t want to be stopped by a park ranger on the elopement day, so make sure that after you have your elopement location, you research what permits are required for that spot. Permits vary in price, but are usually between $25 and $300. Think of it this way - it costs way less than a venue, and the money goes to helping keep the park clean and beautiful! Apply for your permit in advance to ensure enough time for processing, and if your ceremony spot is popular, to ensure you’re the first ones to apply.
Shop for Elopement Attire & Adventure Gear
You’re going to need some wedding attire - but how do you shop for an elopement?
All elopement dresses can be wedding dresses, but not all wedding dresses are elopement dresses! For an elopement, comfort is key - and your dress needs to let you move, hike, climb, and adventure around easily. Mermaid and ballgown style dresses are a no go, but A-line and princess cut, or anything with a loose, flowy skirt, work perfectly! If you’re planning to hike on your elopement day, you may also want to consider if you’ll be packing your dress or wearing it on the way up. If you pack it, the best way to prevent wrinkles is to find light fabrics like lace, chiffon, and tulle! These light fabrics are also easy to move around in, and they blow in the wind nicely for a good photo op. Heavier fabrics like silk or velvet can be great for keeping you warm if your elopement is in a colder environment, and you can always add a shawl or cape in case you need layers.
When you’re shopping for elopement suits, make sure your suit fits you well, and lets you move easily. A three piece suit is perfect if you’ll need layers or your location may be cold, as you can remove or put on the jacket as needed! Dress pants and a nice button up work well for a more casual look. Wool and cotton are the easiest to hike and move around in, because they’re usually comfortable and breathable! Don’t be afraid to have fun with the color of your suit - and you can even ask your photographer for advice on what color will best complement the landscape you’re eloping in.
The adventure gear you’ll need depends on your elopement location, and what you want to do! If you need some hiking boots, make sure to buy these with plenty of time before your elopement, so that you can break them in before the big day. There’s nothing worse than new shoe blisters, and you don’t want to spend your elopement hobbling around! Whatever shoe you opt for, make sure they’re comfortable and that you can wear them all day!
Some other gear you may need includes a hiking backpack, a headlamp, water bottles, a first aid kit, picnic blanket, or maybe even some snorkel gear or microspikes! It all depends on your elopement location and what you want to do, so make a list ahead of time to ensure you’re prepared.
Get a Marriage License
Marriage laws are different in every state, and in every country. Your marriage license needs to be obtained in the state you’re getting married in - so if you’re traveling over state lines for your elopement, make sure you’re familiar with those marriage laws. Some states have a waiting period, which means you’ll need to wait a few days before you can use your marriage license - so make sure to look this up ahead of time, and give yourself plenty of time to do this! Some couples choose to do the paperwork at home before or after the actual elopement - this can be easier, and allow you to focus on the fun stuff on your elopement day. Paperwork doesn’t make your marriage real, your vows do!
You’ll also want to look up witness requirements - along with the officiant, most states require two witnesses to sign your marriage license. Some only require one, and a few don’t require any at all. But, this doesn’t mean that an elopement without any guests is off the table! You can have any adult sign, so your vendors can double as your witnesses, or you can even find two people at your elopement location.
For a brief summary of marriage laws and requirements in every US state, check out this website!
Make a Timeline
You’re almost there - you have your ceremony spot picked out, all your vendors paid, paperwork obtained, and you’re ready to get married! Before the elopement day, you’ll need to make a timeline for the day. Unlike a traditional wedding, elopement timelines allow for a lot more flexibility - but you’ll still need to know where to go and what you’re doing, so a timeline will help! You can ask your photographer for advice on how long each part of the elopement day will take (you’ll need extra time for photos), and how to schedule around the best lighting. When you make your timeline, make sure to leave some extra time for traffic or other delays - it’s always better to have a little more time than you need than to be rushing and stressed out.
Want some more details on how to craft an elopement day timeline? Check out this post!
Well, this is it! The last step when it comes to how to elope is to do the thing - get married to your best friend at an amazing location, and have the most incredible day of your life! The best part is that your wedding day will be everything you wanted, and nothing that you didn’t - and isn’t that a much better way to celebrate the beginning of your marriage than to feel forced into throwing a huge wedding that you hardly get to enjoy?
If you’ve decided that eloping is right for you, reach out to start planning! As an elopement photographer, my job (other than taking photos) is to be your hype person, your planning assistant, and your adventure buddy, and to ensure that you have everything you need to plan an elopement day that’s unique, epic, and totally you. Let's start this adventure :)