How to Elope – A Complete Checklist for Planning Your Elopement

Elopements are becoming a bit more mainstream but planning an amazing elopement is still an unfamiliar process to many people. If you’re wondering how to elope, you’re in the right place! As an elopement photographer, I specialize in helping couples find amazing locations out in nature to get married at, planning out fun things to do, & creating an all around amazing experience that lets you do what you truly want for your wedding day. Use this article on how to elope and the elopement checklists to help you in the elopement planning process!

What is an elopement & what can your day be like? The options are truly endless! I like to tell couples to stop thinking about what a wedding day should be. Instead, start thinking about anything & everything your day could be! Think out of the box, what kind of adventures would you love to go on? If you could imagine yourself in some of the most beautiful surroundings of nature, where would you like to say your vows to each other? Once you break through limiting beliefs of what a wedding day “should be like”, you can really start planning an amazing elopement day that is true to you & what you really want.

Keep in mind that every elopement is different! Not everyone follows this elopement checklist in the same order. I highly recommend booking a specialized elopement photographer as we can help with so much more beyond just photography. Couples also plan elopements on different timelines. Some couples plan up to 18 months in advance, others plan only 1-3 months in advance. There’s no wrong way to elope!

1. Start Thinking About What Your Day Could Be

At this point in the process, don’t get too hung up on details. When you start thinking about what your elopement day could be, just dream up what you’d like your day to be like without thinking about all the logistics. Maybe you’ve seen other elopement photos & are looking at different ideas, while viewing different sources can help, think outside the box & imagine what YOU want. While you’re both talking, just discuss any ideas for your wedding day that pop up in your head.

Close your eyes. Where do you dream of getting married at? When you look into each other’s eyes, what do you want your surroundings to feel like? Don’t let the logistics or practicality of your ideas shut them down! Just dream together & let your minds wander & think about anything you’d love to do together. This does NOT mean you have to do the traditional wedding things. Some couples want to have a romantic dinner with just the two of them, prepared by a private chef. Some couples want to do something crazy adventurous like climbing a 14er or completing a via ferrata route. Do you want to feel on top of the world surrounded by mountain peaks? Or do you want to feel in awe, surrounded by the walls of a slot canyon? Or do you want to feel at peace as you listen to the waves crash against a coastline? There are SO MANY awesome things you can do for your elopement day. Really let yourself truly dream of what your day could be like.

Elopement Checklist for Dreaming Up Your Day

  • Think of everything your day could be, NOT what a traditional wedding “should be”.
  • Let yourself dream & don’t get too caught up on the logistics of it all at this point.
  • Do you want to elope in a place special to you or do you want to go to a totally new place?
  • Think about how you want to feel on your day. What activities or locations could help you encapsulate those feelings?
  • Have a date night & just talk about ideas for your day together to help you plan a day true to you!

2. Consider Guests, Locations, & Seasons

Once you’ve started dreaming more about what your day could be & you’ve let your mind wander a bit, now it’s time to start thinking about specifics such as if you want to include any guests, more specific locations, & what you want your elopement day to be. 

To Have Guests at Your Elopement or Not?

For guests at your elopement, think about if there is anyone you really want there to hear you say your vows & commit your lives together. Or would you rather say private vows with no one else around? Self solemnizing your elopement or having a commitment ceremony for your elopement are both ways to have a totally private vow ceremony without even the need for an officiant. Some couples also choose to say private vows between themselves on an adventure somewhere but then also share more public vows in their ceremony with guests. Sometimes there are things you just want to share with each other & a private vow or letter reading is a great way to do that! You can also have an elopement reception if you want to have the day just be the two of you but still eventually want to celebrate with friends & family.

When considering as to whether you should invite certain people, think of questions such as: Are the people you are inviting on board with your decision to elope or would certain people cause drama or try to control your day? Can you truly narrow down your guest list or if you invite that person will you also have to invite this person with a snowball effect taking place with your guest list? What kind of day do you want? Will it be accessible for guests to get to your locations & go to the places you want to go?

You can include friends & family in your elopement even without them being there with you. Call them up on Zoom or FaceTime before or after your ceremony, have friends & family write letters for you both to read during your elopement, or even share your elopement photos or elopement videos with your friends & family to show them what an epic day you had. For even more information about eloping with friends & family, contact me about my in-depth client guide that covers everything in this article & even more!

When it comes to your guests, you also want to consider accessibility. Are your guests willing to drive or ride in Jeeps or other 4WD vehicles? Remote places do cost more to stay there & travel there, can your guests afford it? Also, can the locations you want support the number of people you want to invite? Keep in mind that the more people you invite, the more limited your location options will be.

Locations & Seasons

Next, it is time to start narrowing down more specific elopement locations you may want to go to! My friend Aimee Flynn has shared a great diagram (my own version you can see below). When it comes to location, you can only choose 2 out of these three qualities– accessibility, privacy, & views. For example, a location can be very private with amazing views, but isn’t as easily accessible & may require Jeeps or hiking. Or a location may have great views with easy accessibility but is located in a very popular national park that has no privacy. Or a location could be very private & easily accessible for guests, but the views aren’t quite as epic. 

You can only choose two! There are very few locations that are easy to access, have the most epic views, & are very private.

Your location is going to have a huge effect on the whole experience of your day. I do call myself an “experience creator” so a huge part of my job as an elopement photographer is helping you choose the right location that will give you the experience you want. Maybe you’ve seen the “Instagram famous” locations in various national parks & other locations. But what you may not see is the line people had to wait in to take that photo or all the people edited out of a background. I work hard to find hidden gems of locations or help you to plan for times that won’t have nearly as many people. Trust your elopement photographer & listen to our advice! I promise your experience will be better for it.

When it comes to choosing a location for your elopement, think about what kind of places mean something special to you. You can either choose an existing location that is already special or choose a new location that you make special by sharing your vows there. Just start thinking general in terms of locations like mountains, deserts, or coastal regions. From there don’t get stuck on a specific region, state, or country just yet! Consider all the options & ask your elopement photographer for some unexpected, out of the box, or off the beaten path options & you could be pleasantly surprised! Weather & seasons also greatly vary from region to region & change throughout the year. Spring in the mountains of Colorado, for example, is basically still winter. So be sure to do your research on weather. You also may find the 115ºF temperatures of the deserts of Utah during summer to be quite unbearable for an elopement in Moab!

Elopement photography of a couple in the mountains of Colorado.

The seasons & weather can also affect the accessibility of certain locations. Rains in the desert can cause flash flooding & and be quite dangerous. Snow can block access to mountains & other high elevation locations until mid-summer. High tide can make coastal areas & beaches have less room available. The rainy season in certain forests can create lots of mud for hiking or driving. Don’t forget to think about the weather! And even if you do encounter less than ideal weather during your elopement day, remember that as long as you focus on having an enjoyable time with each other, your elopement day is going to be amazing no matter what!

When it comes to locations, you can’t always just go anywhere & do anything. My rule is to always assume a permit is needed until you hear otherwise. Some locations have restrictions as to where you can go & many permits have stipulations that you follow leave no trace. As an official Leave No Trace Aware Photographer, I’m here to help guide you through the process of permits & give you tips on how to have a more sustainable elopement day.

When it comes to planning out locations, you can plan on going to multiple different areas & doing multiple activities. You can even plan a 2-3 day elopement for tons of epic adventures & exploring!

Checklist for Guests, Locations, & Seasons for Your Elopement

  • Do you want no guests or do you want to invite a few people? Remeber to only invite people who will truly add something to your day. Don’t invite someone out of obligation.
  • You can include friends or family even without them physically present. Have them write letters for you to read the day of, call them during your elopement day, & share your photos & videos with them!
  • What is most important to the two of you in a location? The best most epic views, easy accessibility for you & any guests, or something private & less popular? You can only choose two!
  • Don’t forget about weather! Weather can affect your experience, the accessibility of locations, & what you need to pack to be prepared.
  • Be sure to research permits & leave no trace information specific to the area you are eloping. Alpine tundra in the mountains, cryptobiotic soil in the desert, sand dunes on the beach, & other environments are all sensitive in their own ways.
  • Be sure to print a physical copy of your permit if your location requires permits.

3. The Logisitics of Planning Your Elopement

Ok, so you’ve put a lot of thought into what you want your day to be, who you want to invite, & where to go. It’s time to start thing about the logistics & specifics of everything. I love using Kayak & Google Flights if you are going to be booking air travel to your elopement destination. Here’s a great guide on how to use Google Flights. I recommend giving yourselves a minimum of 2 days to get into your location before your elopement. If you are coming to a place with a higher altitude, traveling in even earlier is definitely recommended. Please do not underestimate the effects that altitude can have on you! I’ve had clients that didn’t listen to this & got in just a day before their elopement in the mountains & they got altitude sickness during the elopement. Please give yourselves some time to adjust & don’t forget to drinks lots of water.

When it comes to booking a place to stay, keep in mind a lot of elopement locations are popular tourist destinations & lodging can be pricier or book up faster. So book in advance to get the place you want. If you’re open to camping, it may be harder for things like getting ready, but there are all sorts of camping spots available, especially in the western United States. If camping or backpacking is something you enjoy doing, having a camping or backpacking elopement can be a great way to incorporate some of the things you love into your elopement day! Be sure you research that where you are staying isn’t too far from your elopement location. Booking lodging too far away can really affect the experience of your day & adds unnecessary travel.

You’ll also need to gear up! Of course, you want to choose a suit, dress, or whatever attire you want to wear during your elopement. But if you’re having an outdoor adventure elopement, you’ll also want some basic outdoor gear depending on what you plan on doing the day of your elopement.

When it comes to picking your dress, suit, or other attire. Be sure you can actually move around in it. In the store or at home, test it out. Do squats, spin around, jump, lift up each leg individually, march in place, bend over, & sit down. Your formal attire really needs to be flexible & not too tight. Even if you aren’t doing any crazy long hikes, you still may climb up on top of rocks, cross over logs, ride in a Jeep, or do other things that will require being able to freely move. You want your wedding attire to feel like “you”. So if a dress isn’t your thing, maybe a formal romper is more your style. If you don’t like a full suit, wear dress pants & suspenders instead. If you don’t want a white dress, wear a colored dress! Want some recommendations for online shops? Check out the list below….

You’re also going to need at least the basics for outdoor gear. For shoes, be sure to choose something with good tread. Men’s dress shoes are notorious for being slick & stiff which is not a great combination when you need your shoes to get a grip. Choose shoes that have some flexibility. Contrary to what many people think, you don’t want a super thick, stiff shoe. Your feet should still be able to bend & move in your shoes, this enables your foot to make more contact with the ground, giving you better traction in your shoes. Be sure to break any new shoes in beforehand. And if you chose a good leather or vegan leather shoe option, your shoes can actually look really good with your more formal wedding attire!

Other gear you might need really depends on exactly where you are eloping. I almost always recommend layers. Most locations do have the potential to cool down, even if it is just at night or closer to sunrise or sunset. Be sure you have a refillable water container & carry enough water with you. Dehydration can contribute to altitude sickness & headaches. I always recommend a backpack of some sort, even for non-hiking elopements. It’s always nice to have a bag to keep stuff in or bring touch-up supplies & extra water with you. And don’t forget the snacks!

Checklist for Elopement Planning Logistics

  • Book your flights & look for deals using sites like Kayak or Google Flights. Give yourself some time to settle before your elopement date.
  • Book a place to stay or research campgrounds in the area.
  • Buy your formal attire. Remember to test it out & make sure nothing is too tight or restrictive!
  • Either buy some shoes with good tread & break them in, or bring along your hiking shoes or boots.
  • What kind of elopement are you planning? From there you can start to make a packing list of everything you might need during your elopement day. You can then use that list as you get closer to packing things up for your day.

4. Book Vendors for Your Elopement

With bigger, more traditional weddings, hiring a bunch of different vendors is very common. With elopements, you may not need as many vendors, but choosing the right vendors can really help take your elopement from good to great!

Photographers

For an elopement, I definitely recommend hiring a specialized elopement photographer. Why? Contrary to what people might think, there is a difference between traditional wedding photographers & elopement photographers! Think of it this way, you wouldn’t hire a painter to create a sculpture. Both are artists that create beautiful works of art, but they each have different skillsets. Want to learn more about the differences? Read this! An elopement photographer is going to help a TON in making your day the best it can be.

Videographers

While photos are absolutely amazing at capturing, videos can just capture those moments in a different way. Having a videographer for an elopement can be really great if you want to share your day & the experience you had with friends & family, or if you want to share the video at an elopement reception at a later date. Even if you’re not sharing the video with anyone else, it’s amazing to be able to watch your video, hear your vows, & remember your day.

Florist

I know not everyone is big into flowers, but I just LOVE some good florals! If you read more about me, you’ll know that I have a serious love for all things plants & flowers. When talking with a florist, just be sure that they don’t have any floral minimums & make sure they use hardier flowers. Some florists only do bigger weddings since they can sell more products but some florists love doing floral for elopements. Florals also just add an immediate “wedding vibe” to your elopement day. In order to leave no trace, be sure your florist doesn’t use any invasive florals or pieces that can drop seeds. Also think outside the box! Floral head pieces, pocket squares, & other options are some unique ways to include florals.

Bride and groom bring their dog to their Tucson Botanical Gardens wedding in Arizona.

Hair & Makeup

Booking a hair & makeup artist can take some of the stress of getting ready off of you. When deciding on the look you want for your hair & makeup, be sure you don’t go overboard. A super glammed-up look can make you feel less like yourself. And you don’t want to feel like that in your wedding photos. If you have certain concerns about skin tone or hairstyle, be sure to talk to your stylist about it to be sure that they can accommodate you. If you’re having a sunrise elopement though, it can be harder to find a stylist that will get up that earlier, so instead, taking lessons or watching videos for hair & makeup can help you do it yourself!

Officiants

If you are eloping in a place like Colorado, did you know you can legally get married without an officiant? It’s called self solemnizing! But to get legally married in most other places, you need to have an officiant. Officiants come in many different “styles” depending on what you want from your ceremony. But again, if you’re hiking, it can be hard to find an officiant! So having a commitment ceremony is another option.

Catering, Food, & Private Chefs

Food! You can’t forget about food on your elopement day! What you plan out for food for your elopement day, depending on the kind of elopement you’re planning, where you’ll be adventuring, & how many people are involved. Personally, I think having a private chef is one of the best options. You can dine in the privacy of your own space without renting a room from a restaurant, the food is prepared right in front of you & is always fresh, & they can cook just the right amount of food for the people you have. Depending on the people you have, catering may be a better option. And don’t forget about dessert! Having a cake or some other sort of treat can make your day feel a little more special.

Acoustic Music

There is just something about music that can just make you really feel something. Acoustic music is easy to play & setup in some of the more remote areas that elopements take place in. Be sure to check regulations though. A lot of times national parks can have restrictions on noise or instruments. Just one more reason that choosing the right location really matters.

Adventure Guides

Adventure elopement can include all sorts of fun activities! But some of these activities can be better with an experienced guide. You can hire guides for Jeeping, canyoneering guides, climbing & via ferrata guides, hot air balloon or helicopter pilots, or other kinds of guides depending on the activity you are planning! Please keep in mind that I am not a guide but I am more than happy to help you in finding the right people for what you want to do.

Need some vendor recommendations? I’m always happy to help with vendor recommendations!

Checklist for Booking Elopement Vendors

  • I recommend booking at least a photographer & videographer for your elopement.
  • Florals need to be durable & hold up to outdoor weather for elopements. Also, talk to your florist about out of the box ideas! You can even decorate adventure gear (like chalk bags or hiking backpacks) with florals.
  • Hire a hair & makeup artist as well as an officiant if it makes sense for your location & timing of your elopement. Keep in mind it can be much harder to find these vendors for very remote locations or for sunrise elopements.
  • Book other vendors as needed such as vendors for food, bakeries, or musicians.
  • Depending on what kind of activities you want to include & where you want to go, booking an adventure guide may be helpful or even required.
  • When booking vendors, check out their social media, reviews, & website to see if they fit what you’re looking for.

5. Plan Out Some Fun Activities

Planning out some fun activities for your elopement can be really fun! For planning how to elope, you do not want your day to just be an all-day photoshoot so planning out fun things to do is such a great way to make your day fun! At big traditional weddings, it’s harder to plan fun activities & the day can already feel so rushed. But with an intimate elopement day with just a few to no guests, it is much easier to plan out fun things to do. Your elopement does not have to be just a short ceremony & some photos afterward. Make your day FUN! Want some activity ideas? I’ve outlined some below…

Activity Ideas for Elopements

  • hiking
  • mountain biking
  • driving 4WD roads
  • canyoneering
  • kayaking or paddleboarding
  • first dance out in nature
  • packing a picnic
  • overnight backpacking
  • having a campfire
  • stargazing
  • soaking in some hot springs
  • writing your vows together before your elopement
  • hot air balloon or helicopter tour
  • snowmobiling or skiing
  • sledding in the snow or down a sand dune

Want even more elopement ideas? Check out this article!

Bride and groom in pack rafts for an elopement in western Colorado.

When it comes to planning out things to do for your elopement, think about what things you both like to do in your everyday lives. How you elope is up to you! Do you like hiking? Do you like getting out on the water? How do you feel about heights? How adventurous do you like to be together? Do you want to incorporate activities you love or try something new? Not everything you do has to be something adventurous! Instead of hiring a musician, one of you could play music. Or do something relaxing together, take a breath, & enjoy your day together.

Checklist for Elopement Activities & Things to Do

  • Your elopement is your day to do what you want! Don’t get caught up in what you’re “supposed to do” for your wedding. Plan the elopement that you really want!
  • Planning some simple things to do like a picnic, some hiking, or having a campfire are pretty easy to do with most elopements. Things like hot air balloons, snowmobiling, or backpacking can take a bit more planning.
  • Do you want to incorporate activities that you already love to do together or do you want to try out something new for your elopement day?
  • What kind of activities can your location accommodate?
  • Be sure to hire any appropriate guides for the activities you want to do. Keep in mind that I am a photographer, not a guide.
  • Some activities can be booked when you show up on location such as some kayak rentals, other activities need to be booked in advance. Be sure to do your research!

6. Have the Best Kind of Wedding Day Ever!

Alright, after all this preparation, it’s finally time to have the best kind of wedding day! Big weddings can be pretty cool but there is just something about elopements that is just so dang amazing. When it comes to your final elopement day, planning out a timeline with your photographer & other vendors is sooo important. An all day elopement can give you a ton of time for an amazing time together. Also, be sure to download maps as needed. I highly recommend Maps.me for offline maps. Google Maps does have offline maps available but they are less reliable offline. If you’re going into a national park, the National Parks App can also be very useful. For elopements in Colorado, the COTREX app has all sorts of trails. And then of course AllTrails has downloadable maps.

Be sure to prepare your guests! Your guests are likely used to more traditional weddings. Depending on the location of your elopement, you are likely going to have to prepare your guests for the location & weather there. Tell your guests to bring extra layers, possibly an umbrella, & make sure they wear practical shoes & not heels. Be sure your guests are aware of leave no trace regulations. Sometimes your guests may want to surprise you with confetti, a champagne pop (which may not be allowed in national parks), sparklers which may not be allowed under a fire ban, or other things. Guests may also not know of things like staying on the trail, not stepping on cryptobiotic soil, or not picking wildflowers. You’ll also want your guests to carpool as much as possible, most areas have very limited parking available. Be sure your guests also have relevant timeline info & that they know where to go & where to meet. My advice is to overprepare your guests & prepare them for the outdoors! Elopements are different than weddings.

If you are having an unplugged wedding, be sure to inform your guests of it. If you have an officiant, they can designate a time for everyone to take a phone photo for a moment. Then tell everyone to put their phones away for the rest of the ceremony. Trust me, you don’t want a bunch of phones in your ceremony photos & candid guest photos during the ceremony! You also want your guests to be fully present in the moment & not watching you through a screen.

Remember that not everything will go according to plan. Go with the flow & focus on each other & you’ll be able to have a great day no matter what! Take a deep breath, chill out, & ENJOY your day! If something gets too stressful or too much, don’t be afraid to change up your day, be spontaneous, or cut something out of your day that just doesn’t fit. I know that being in front of a camera can be a bit nerve wracking. But honestly, having a drink or a shot before photos (not getting drunk, just a drink) can honestly help you loosen up so much! Seriously don’t underestimate this tip!

Focus on having a great experience together & your photos will turn out amazing!

Adventurous climbing elopement in Moab, Utah.

Ready to elope? View more info & pricing & contact me to get started!

Final Checklist for Your Elopement Day

  • Be sure to carry & pack all the proper documentation with you such as your marriage license, identification, printed & digital versions of your permits, passports (if needed), & park passes.
  • Pack the most important items in your carryon luggage if you are flying into your location. This includes your suit, dress, rings, vows, permits, & the other most important things that you do NOT want gone in case other luggage gets lost.
  • Prepare your guests. Be sure they wear appropriate clothes & shoes, be sure they know of where to go, when to meet, parking information, & that they have clear directions of exactly where to go.
  • Inform your guest if you are having an unplugged wedding. You or your officiant can announce that no phones are allowed at the ceremony.
  • Make sure you pack appropriate gear for the weather.
  • Use apps like Maps.me, AllTrails, the National Parks App, COTREX, & others to download offline maps.
  • Have a copy of your timeline saved to your phone & possibly printed out.
  • If you’re coming into a higher elevation location, don’t overdo it with alcohol, drinks lots of extra water, & give yourself some time to acclimate to the new environment.
  • If you are picking up things like desserts, food, or florals near your location, be sure to contact the vendors so you know where & when you can pick up your items.
  • For any vendors or guides you have booked, be sure you have their contact information saved on your phone. For adventure guides like kayaking or canyoneering, be sure you know where to meet & if you need to pick up any equipment.
  • Bring all the gear you might need. This can include but is not limited to: extra layers, jackets, gloves, snacks, picnic supplies, extra boots or shoes, rings, vows, backpacks, refillable water bottle, makeup, hair styling supplies, extra supplies for pets, blankets, umbrellas, tissues, hand sanitizer, bug spray, dewrinkle spray, pain medication, bandaids, battery pack for phone, sewing kit, flashlight, headlamps.
  • Remember that not everything will go according to plan. Go with the flow & focus on having fun with each other & you’ll be able to have a great day no matter what!

Frequently Asked Questions About How to Elope

Nope! Eloping does not have to be a secret. Modern elopements take place with more planning & even guests. If you don’t have guests, you can send elopement announcements or tell friends & family of your plans to elope.

Why elope? Couples choose to elope for all sorts of reasons! Most couples choose to elope to have a day that is true to what they want & to avoid the stress of a bigger wedding. The focus of an elopement gets back to what the wedding day should truly be about– the couple. An elopement day also focuses much more on the experience, experience over things!

Yep! You can have an elopement with a few guests. I recommend no more than 20 guests for an elopement out in nature. There are very few select locations that can accommodate more people & usually those locations can get booked up more in advance. Too many guests can also make planning your elopement day a bit more stressful & the logistics get more complicated.

I recommend a minimum of 4 hours for your elopement, but if you want to have time for multiple locations, exploring, & having an adventure elopement, 8 hours or longer will be a better fit for your elopement day. You can even plan a multi-day elopement!

Having a reception after you elope is a great way to celebrate with the people important to you! Having a reception or elopement party allows you to have a day just for the two of you & you can still have a party with the people you love. It doesn’t have to be a big deal & can just be a simple backyard reception!

Malachi Lewis at Shell Creek Photography in the mountains of western Colorado.

About Me

Adventure Elopement Photographer & Outdoor Enthusiast

Hey! My name is Malachi Lewis, & here at Shell Creek Photography, my job is to foster & capture the connection between you & tell your elopement story through photos. I specialize in adventure elopements where we go off-roading, do epic hikes, go canyoneering, & all sorts of other epic adventures!

If you thought this article on how to elopement & the elopement checklist was helpful, you’ll LOVE the even more comprehensive exclusive client guides, checklists, booklets, & other info I provide to couples that book with me!

One Comment

  1. Excellent resource Malachi! I love the guided questions as you go through the planning process of the whole day. It really helps organize our thoughts in an actionable way. Thank you!

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