Are you thinking that an elopement might be right for you but you have no idea how to start planning your elopement? Well, you're in luck! Not only did I elope myself, but I've also photographed countless elopements including city hall marriages, intimate backyard ceremonies, and adventurous multi-day backpacking elopements! And since I specialize in elopements, I have lot's of advice and helpful planning tips to share.
How to plan your elopement from start to finish:
What is an elopement and is it right for you? Only you can answer that, but I'm betting that if you landed on this page, you really want to have an amazing wedding day that is uniquely perfect for you...without the stress of planning a wedding. When you start planning your elopement, the biggest thing is to forget everything you know about what a wedding day should be. Instead, think about what your wedding day could be! What are your favorite activities to do together? What food do you love? Is there a place you have always wanted to visit or a place that you go back to again and again because it holds special meaning? The options of what your elopement could be are truly endless!
Because each elopement is unique, this elopement planning checklist is more of a guide than full of "to-do's". Perhaps you will decide some things aren't for you or you will pick your activities and let that determine the location. I recommend hiring an elopement photographer to help you when it comes to your elopement. Unlike traditional wedding photographers, we usually have some insider tips and advice when it comes to planning, like legalities, location suggestions, and best Leave No Trace practices.
Step 1: Imagine Your Best Day
Take a seat, close your eyes, and breathe. When you picture yourself waking up on your elopement day, what do you see? Where are you? Are there any smells? What is the weather like? Are you in a hotel room abroad or waking up in your room at home? Are you thinking of doing something very adventurous or would you prefer a more relaxed day with a romantic dinner prepared by a private chef? Or do you want both by having a multi-day experience?
Sit down with your partner and talk about what a perfect elopement experience would be for the two of you. Don't get hung up on the logistics or how to make it happen at this point- we will get there! This is to figure out what you truly want and the things that would make your elopement day special. Perhaps you just never imagined yourself getting married in a traditional wedding ceremony or even getting married at all because of what you thought a commitment ceremony was. This is the time to think outside of the box because there truly are no rules as to what your elopement could be.
How to dream up your perfect elopement checklist:
Think of EVERYTHING your day could be, and not what you think a wedding day should be
Think about how you want to feel. What places or activities does that inspire for you?
Do you want to elope somewhere totally new to you or somewhere special that you know well?
Now, bring it all together and talk about what your big picture wants are for your elopement day!
Step 2: Decide Whether to Invite Guests to Your Elopement
When you were imagining your day, did you imagine being surrounded by friends and family? Or did you visualize just you two? When you were imagining your perfect day, deep down your instincts guided you on this front.
From personal experience, both from my own elopement and those I've photographed, once guests are involved, the stress level does go up. No matter how small the group is, there will be part of you that will need to take care of them. Locations and timelines get more restricted. There are often group size limits in the backcountry and things just always take longer the more people you have. And that is fine! But it also means that you will be less flexible on the day of. So, if you do plan to invite guests, make sure it is people that fully support your desires, who bring you joy, and that you plan extra time.
For some people, they want the best of both worlds. They can't imagine not celebrating with their closest friends and/or family. At the same time, they want to share their vows privately with just the two of them. And these are some of my favorite elopements! This is where a multi-day elopement can be a great option. You can have a full, unrestricted day that is just for the two of you to celebrate your relationship and your commitment to each other. And on the next day, you can have a day to celebrate that commitment with a small group of VIPs!
Here are some ways to include your friends and family in your elopement while also having a "just us" experience:
Have family and friends write letters for you to read together
Involve them in the planning, from dress appointments to showing them pictures of your location
Zoom or phone call with them before/afterwards
Host a multi-day experience! When I photograph multi-day elopements, I take care to edit a handful of photos from the "just us" day for the couple to share with family and friends on the second or third day.
When deciding whether to invite guests and who to invite, consider:
Is this person supportive of our decision or will they try to control your day?
Does this person cause drama or unnecessary stress?
Can you really narrow down the list or is it a situation where if you invite one person, you have to invite the other?
When you dreamed up your activities and locations, were they accessible or would it be difficult for some of your guests to get to?
Step 3: Where and When to Elope
Topics covered: Location, Weather, Seasonality, Accessibility/Permits, Leave No Trace
Choosing the best location for you to elope is something that your photographer can definitely help with! From permits to leave no trace considerations and accessibility, an expert adventure elopement photographer should be able to guide you. And this is where I really recommend hiring a local, once you know generally where you might want to elope. Locals know the unique weather patterns of the area (especially if you are planning to elope in the mountains!) and what time of year will be best to give you the best experience.
For example, I specialize in Austrian Alps elopements, but not Swiss Alps. I know the Austrian Alps like the back of my hand since I grew up there and know some of the best, secret spots. And during the rest of the year, I am always working and playing in New York and New England — specifically, Upstate NY, Vermont, and New Hampshire — so those are the mountains, weather patterns, and trail conditions (including popularity/business) that I know best. I WON'T be the photographer for you if you want to elope in the Southwest or the Pacific Northwest.
Considerations for when it comes to choosing a location are much like what it is like making/buying a product. In my old life producing theatre, we used to say you can choose two of the three: good, fast, or cheap. You can produce something good and cheap, but it will take a while. If you want something good and fast, it will be expensive. Fast and cheap? It won't be any good.
The same concept applies when choosing a location:
Is it easy to access?
Are the views epic?
Is it private and secluded so you can share your vows without an audience?
The thing is, you can't have all three. For epic views that are easy to access, it's going to be really crowded (think: Whiteface in the Adirondacks). If you want epic views and privacy, it's going to be harder to access and will most likely involve several miles of hiking or a special mode of transportation, such as a small plane or helicopter ride. And when it comes to choosing when to elope in your chosen location, weather can greatly affect the accessibility.
Your location is going to inform the vast majority of your elopement day experience. And that's where working with a local photographer who specializes in elopements really makes a difference. We understand the little considerations that will really make a difference in your whole experience. When it comes to outdoor adventurous elopements, there's already so much flexibility needed (ahem: weather), so working with someone who will make sure that every other thing has been well thought out is key. "Instagram famous" locations are not a good place to share your vows, I promise. You'll be standing in line and get two minutes for a portrait or two before needing to give space to the next visitor.
Questions to ask yourself when picking an elopement location:
Is there a place we have always wanted to visit?
Is there a location that we go year after year on vacation?
What sort of scenery do we want? Lakes, waterfalls, mountains, forests...?
What sort of weather do you love? Are there special considerations at different times of year? If you love the snow but hate the cold, it might be worth eloping in the spring in the Alps. Or if you dream of colorful foliage, late September is perfect in Upstate NY.
Think about comfort- what are you willing to deal with? And more importantly, what are you not willing to deal with? Are you open to it being cold and needing hand warmers? How about bugs? Summer might have really long days and gorgeous late-night sunsets, but mosquitoes and gnats are often rampant. Are you comfortable hiking in crampons? If you elope in September in the White Mountains, we sometimes have ice on the summits, so extra safety gear is required.
Step 4: Create a Realistic Elopement Budget
Creating a budget for your elopement is an important part of the planning process. Highly consider what is most important to you and where it may be worth splurging or saving. Depending on where you decide to elope, costs can range drastically. You'll want to take into account airfare, lodging, food, activities, transportation and any permits needed if you are getting married in a public space. When looking at items in your budget, have fun with the details and don’t skimp on things that are important to you. There’s no reason why planning an elopement has to be stressful; make it memorable by finding creative ways to save money while still creating a meaningful experience for you and those involved! And don't forget to add in about 10% to what you plan to spend. If some element goes over or you want to add an activity last minute, it's budgeted for. And if the money doesn't get spent, well, heck! That's a win too!
So, how expensive is it to elope? Well, it depends! You can elope for as little as the cost of your marriage license or you can plan a multi-day destination elopement with friends and family for $40,000. The average elopement budget for couples working with me is 12-15K. In comparison, the average wedding cost in Upstate NY is upwards of 60K.
Here is a short list of everything you could budget for during your elopement. Elopement costs vary widely and this list is merely a suggestion of what to think about when budgeting your elopement.
Elopement Budget Considerations:
Hair & make up
Marriage license & legal fees
Location permits and Fees
Rings and accessories
Rentals, such as a picnic set up
Day-of transportation (helicopter, rental car, Jeep, etc)
Hotel or short-term rental fees
Food (maybe a private chef)
Excursions + day-of activities
Details (vow books, ring boxes, signature cologne, stationary, etc)
Step 5: Book Your Vendors
Topics covered: Photography, Videography, Florals & Decor, Hair & Make Up, and more!
Vendors! Do you need them? No. Because technically all you need to elope is you, your partner, and maybe an officiant. But having a few key vendors is recommended, especially so that you can relive your memories after the fact. When considering each person you are hiring to be a key part of your elopement experience, it's important to think about their style and whether or not it fits with the overall vibe of your elopement. Just because someone is a fantastic wedding vendor, doesn't mean that they are a great elopement vendor.
Planning an adventure elopement requires special considerations. Depending on the type of experience you're looking for, you may want to consider vendors who specialize in wild and beautiful locations. You'll also need experts on hand to help ensure your safety. Some photographers, like me, are also licensed hiking guides and certified wilderness first responders. Adventure guides can provide invaluable advice on the best routes and trails as well. Lastly, don't forget about accommodations - you'll need somewhere to rest after long days of exploring!
The most important vendor to consider is a photographer. Eloping is an adventure, and it's important to capture those memories so they can be relived long after your special day has ended. Hiring a photographer for your elopement will make sure all the beautiful moments of your wedding are captured with stunning detail and quality. Not only that, but having a professional get creative with the shots will ensure you have a variety of gorgeous photos to share with friends, family, and loved ones. You don't want to leave anything to chance! I've heard horror stories sadly of couples going with a cheap or inexperienced photographer. And unfortunately, the couple received only low-quality images that could not be printed or and in some cases, all of the images were lost because the photographer did not use professional gear and didn't have a backup system in place! Unlike a traditional wedding where you may still have some photos from guests, being in this situation would be devastating for your elopement because you only have the one chance to get photos documenting the experience as it was. I don't want to scare you, but it happens more often than you'd think. Why risk it?
Hair & Makeup
Hiring out hair and make up isn't for everyone. But if it's going to add to the luxury of your wedding day experience or give you confidence, I say go for it! But you don't need it. And if you do hire out hair and make up, work with someone who has the experience and products that will hold up to an all day activity. Some hair and makeup artists will also hike with you to the summit if you want! If you want a professional look, but you'll be setting out at 3AM, you can also enlist a hair and make up artist to teach you how to do your own look. My biggest advice is to be comfortable and look like yourself.
There are so many options right now for florals. If you are getting married in the backcountry, you will want to get rid of the idea of an arch or big floral arrangements now. They are often not permitted due to leave no trace regulations. That said, a big, gorgeous bouquet is always a beautiful accessory. Again, work with your florist and tell them what your day will look like. They will be able to create a bouquet that is sturdy and filled with flowers that won't wilt as the day goes on. Want to make sure that your bouquet stays poppin' all day long? Consider a faux floral arrangement! They really are lovely.
Other vendors to consider:
There are so many vendors you could hire out. And who you hire will depend on the experience you want to have. Here is a small sampling of options:
Helicopter/ Hot Air Balloon/ Small Plane Pilot
Baker/Wedding Cake Maker
Step 6: Elopement Planning Logistics
Topics covered: Travel, Legalities, Gear
Elopement logistic considerations are different than a wedding, especially when it comes to travel and how long to stay in the area. Because of weather unpredictability, I recommend having at least one day on either side of your location just in case you need to move your elopement. If you are traveling to a new time zone, I recommend arriving 3-5 days ahead of time. If flying, always leave a day buffer, especially these days with so many flights getting cancelled. Direct flights are the way to go because the chance of something going wrong is minimized...plus your carbon footprint is less. And definitely pack your wedding outfits in your carry-on. Eloping somewhere with elevation (over 10K feet?) You will want a week to acclimate, or you risk altitude sickness. In addition to altitude sickness being life-threatening, you also don't want to be battling nausea and splitting headaches during your elopement.
In addition to travel, this is where you will want to decide whether your ceremony will be legal or symbolic. Either way, this is your wedding day. While many of my couples get legally married on their wedding day (yes, I act as their officiant!), some get married ahead of time at City Hall and follow it up with a symbolic elopement ceremony. The second option is what me and my husband did. I have no idea what the date was that we got married at City Hall, but our elopement date is burned into my memory as our anniversary. And if you get legally hitched ahead of time, it doesn't make your elopement ceremony any less special.
Lastly, given your location, the season, and activities, is there any special gear you need to think about and prepare ahead of time? Whether it's making sure you have proper footwear for hiking or making sure you have a two-piece wedding dress for your rock climbing elopement, your gear will vary greatly. All of my couples receive a custom gear guide ahead of their elopement to ensure that they have everything they need and are comfortable using it. The day of your elopement is not the time to test out a new hiking boot or set of skis.
Elopement Logistics Checklist:
Book your travel, including any flights, home rentals, or hotel rooms. Be sure to leave yourself a few days buffer ahead of your elopement date. As a bonus, try not to stay more than 30 minutes from your actual elopement location, since you don't want travel time to eat into your day!
Shoes are key- ever spent the day in uncomfortable shoes, perhaps even getting blisters? IT'S THE WORST! So, invest in a pair of shoes with good tread or plan to pack your tried and true hiking boots.
Make a list of any gear, including clothing, that you may need given your elopement plans. Keep a running list until you actually pack for your elopement to ensure nothing is missed.
Step 7: Elopement Day Activities
Topics covered: Winter Activities, Adventure Activities, Relaxing Activities, Planning Checklist
Although eloping is often about getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it's important to plan some fun activities for your special day. After all, you want to make sure that your elopement is not only unique and meaningful, but that it's also a day full of joy and celebration! Consider things such as outdoor activities like hiking, biking, swimming and more to make the most of your time together. Or add in a few relaxation activities such as yoga or meditation to break up the day and ensure plenty of time for rest. The possibilities are endless - just make sure to have fun!
10 Winter Elopement Activity Ideas
Exchange vows in front of a snow-covered mountain range
Take a romantic sleigh ride through the wintry woods
Enjoy a hot cocoa picnic under the stars
Go skiing or snowboarding down a nearby slope
Go snowshoeing to a frozen waterfall
Get out the cross country skis and explore some new trails
Spend some time stargazing with your partner by an outdoor firepit
Rent snowmobiles for an adventure through the countryside
Try something new and go dog sledding
Visit a nearby ice rink and skate hand in hand
10 Adventure Elopement Ideas
Go on an early morning hot air balloon ride
Take a helicopter ride over glistening bodies of water and mountain ranges
Spend the day on the water in kayaks or canoes exploring local lakes and rivers
Ride horses through open fields in the countryside
Hike up challenging trails with stunning views of nature at the peak
Go rock climbing on natural formations nearby or tackle a via ferrata!
Go for an ATV ride through muddy terrain or up steep hills
Explore winding roads or nearby trails on bikes
Have an impromptu dance party in the middle of nowhere
Go camping and stargaze around a campfire
10 Relaxing Elopement Ideas
Enjoy breakfast in bed
Have a private yoga session at a stunning outdoor location
Visit local vineyards, distilleries, or breweries
Look for shooting stars together and make wishes on them
Plan an intimate dinner for two in nature, complete with music and twinkling lights
Visit local historic sites
Prepare your favorite dishes as you cook together
Write each other love letters to read aloud
Book spa treatments to relax after all the excitement
Visit historic sites around town
When it comes to your elopement, consider what makes the two of you happy together. With the right activities, comes an unforgettable adventure. No matter what type of adventure you're looking for, make sure it really reflects your relationship. Are there any activities that the two of you like to do together? Do you both enjoy getting out in nature? Or maybe you love skiing and think hitting the slopes would just be the best ever? Or would something catered more towards relaxation be preferable? You could always go the traditional route and hire a musician but why not try playing music together instead? Simply enjoy each other's company and savor the day. No matter how you decide to spend it, it will be a day you never forget!
Checklist for choosing elopement activities to do on your wedding day:
• Consider what activities you both like to do together.
• Decide if you prefer something adventurous or more low-key.
• Consider any logistical or financial constraints.
• Don’t forget practical items such as transportation and safety gear.
• Be creative and don’t be afraid to try something new!
Step 8: Have the Best Elopement Wedding Experience Ever!
Dreaming up the perfect elopement, planning activities, and sorting out all the logistics are important steps in creating a truly meaningful and memorable elopement day. And don't forget to leave room for spontaneity! Once it's time to go and enjoy the day, it's just as important to be in the moment and go with the flow; sometimes plans change but that doesn't mean your special day can't still be amazing and unforgettable. And remember, when you focus on each other and being present in the moment, your photos will turn out amazing!
FAQ About Elopements
Question: What is an elopement?
Answer: An elopement is an intimate, meaningful experience, in which the focus is on the couple. If you want to read more about my definition of an elopement and how to decide if it is right for you, visit this blog post.
Question: Do you have to elope in secret?
Answer: There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to eloping. Some couples choose to keep their plans totally secret and surprise their family and friends with a follow up announcement while others decide to share their plans with select people prior to tying the knot. Ultimately, it's up to you and your partner to decide how private or public you want your plans to be.
Question: Can you invite guests to your elopement?
Answer: 100%! If you can't imagine getting married without a select few of your nearest and dearest, you can definitely invite them. The idea with an elopement is that the focus is on you and your relationship. So, if they are there to support you, sure! I do recommend scheduling some time in your day for just the two of you though to soak it all in.
Question: Why do couples choose to elope?
Answer: Couples choose to elope for many reasons. Many people love the idea of a more intimate, meaningful experience and a break away from the traditional wedding structure. Couples may also feel more relaxed and able to focus on each other without worrying about family expectations or external pressures. Additionally, eloping can be much less expensive than planning a traditional wedding event. Ultimately, couples should make the decision that works best for them and their relationship!
Question: Is an officiant necessary for an elopement?
Answer: Not necessarily and not in the traditional sense. Some states, like Colorado, allow you to self-solemnize. Otherwise, your photographer may be licensed to officiate (like me) or you can have a friend get licensed to officiate, depending on state laws. If you are having a purely symbolic ceremony, like you might if you were eloping abroad, then an officiant is not necessary to make it legal. But you may want one anyways to conduct a ceremony. It all depends on how you imagine your wedding ceremony to be!
Question: How long should our elopement be?
Answer: You definitely don't want to feel rushed on your elopement day! And when it comes to traditional weddings, it's a no brainer to celebrate all day- so why would your elopement be any different? I recommend a minimum of 5 hours to ensure plenty of time and to be relaxed throughout no matter what activities you choose. That said, most of my couples opt for either a 10-hour package or a 2-day/15 hours of coverage to be split how they wish.
Question: How much does it cost to elope and what services should I budget for?
Answer: In most states, your marriage license will cost between $35 and $120. So, that would be the minimum you might spend. That said, I recommend budgeting for at least your attire, photographer, travel, and any activities/gear you might need. In my experience, I've seen elopements cost as little as $5,300 all the way up to $40,000. When budgeting, I recommend you consider what elements are and are not important to you. If you want a unique, one of a kind dress- go for it! But if you could care less about buying new or designer, there are plenty of second hand dresses on sites like Simply White or gorgeous outfits that are not marketed as wedding attire.
Question: Are there benefits to choosing a destination elopement over a local one?
Answer: Are you sick of me saying "it all depends on you"? That said, there are several benefits to having a destination elopement over a local one. First, it can be an incredibly romantic and memorable experience, as you get to share your special day with the person you love in a unique location. Secondly, destination elopements are often more cost-effective, even with flights. If you are interested in eloping in the Austrian Alps, reach out! As an EU citizen, I can legally work there and would love to show you some of my favorite spots.
There are also benefits to getting legally married where you live. Often times, it's easier to negotiate the bureaucracy. And if you are getting married elsewhere where the language is different, you might have to travel there in advance (for instance, 6 months ahead of time to fill out paperwork) and/or hire a translator. Not to mention needing to have your official documents translated twice (once to go there and once on the way back) in order to make sure your marriage is recognized.
Question: Can I have a reception after an elopement?
Answer: Absolutely! Hosting a reception after your elopement is a great way to celebrate with family and friends who may not have been able to attend the actual elopement. Whether you choose to host it in the same location as your elopement or somewhere closer to home, having a reception can give you the opportunity to connect with loved ones, share stories and photos, enjoy delicious food and drinks, and continue celebrating your union.
Are you ready to say "Heck Yes! Let's Elope!"
Meet me, Molly, your mountain elopement photographer!
I'm Molly and I'm an award-winning elopement photographer and licensed hiking guide. I photographed my first elopement way back in 2015 and never looked back. Since then, I've eloped myself and helped countless couples have truly amazing wedding day experiences.
If you think I might be the photographer for you, get in touch! I pride myself in only working in places where I have local expertise. Therefore, I specialize in Austrian Alps elopements, New York mountain elopements, and New Hampshire mountain elopements.