How to Elope: Step-by-Step Guide

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If you’ve got a sneaking suspicion that maybe a big wedding isn’t for you, I have good news – you have options! No matter how far you are in the wedding planning process, whether you’ve known all along that you don’t want to get married in a ballroom, you’ve been putting off wedding planning because it just sounds too stressful, or you’ve already gotten yourself pretty deep into planning your big wedding only to realize that it just doesn’t feel quite right, you can elope!

Eloping allows you to take back your wedding day, and to really make sure that the way you begin your marriage is something that suits the two of you. This guide is all about how to elope, with a step-by-step outline of everything you need to do to plan an adventure elopement, and some tips along the way!

After figuring out how to elope, this couple is celebrating their adventurous wedding day in Joshua Tree!

How to Decide to Elope

When it comes to how to elope, the first step is to make a decision! This one actually often feels like the hardest. Because there’s so much pressure, from the wedding industry, and sometimes from family, about how your wedding should look and what you should do, couples often struggle with taking that leap and making the decision to elope instead. But, I’m here to tell you that you deserve a wedding day that you absolutely love – you’re getting married, and shouldn’t that be about you?

There are a lot of reasons that couples decide to elope, and if you and your partner feel like you may not want the big, traditional wedding, don’t let yourself get sucked into spending a ton of time and money on a day that you won’t even enjoy. Have an honest conversation with your partner, talk it over, and if you decide that eloping is right for you, make the decision and commit to it!

Dream Up Your Elopement Day

Once you’ve decided to elope, it’s time to let your imagination run wild! This is so unbelievably exciting – you’ve made the brave decision to do something outside the box and untraditional, and now you get to plan the wedding day of your dreams.

You don’t have to get specific or figure out details quite yet – just use this time to be excited about what’s to come, brainstorm some things that you may want do or some ideas that you might want to incorporate into your day, and spend some time just envisioning what your perfect wedding day might look like.

Create an Elopement Budget

OK, let’s be honest – this part isn’t quite as fun as dreaming and scheming and thinking of all the possibilities for your elopement day, but anytime you’re planning a wedding, no matter the size, it’s important to create a budget before you get into it. An elopement budget will help you figure out some details, and it can be helpful in preventing surprise expenses later. 

One of the best things about elopements is that they allow you to prioritize how you spend your money – there are no rules, which means you can do absolutely anything, and the money you invest in your elopement day will be going towards things that really matter to you. For example, if you’ve been dreaming of getting an amazing dress, more of your budget might go to that. But, if your attire isn’t as important, you might allocate that money towards a delicious dinner cooked by a private chef! And if you’re not much of a foodie, maybe what you have in mind for your elopement day is an epic adventure and a one-of-a-kind experience.

No matter what, remember that the money you spend on your elopement doesn’t determine the value of it – you should invest in experiences that matter to you, prioritize what’s important for your day, and I make sure that you are celebrating exactly the way you want to!

Tell Your Family and Friends (Maybe)

The next step on the elopement to do list is telling your friends and family about your decision – if you want to. Some couples actually choose to wait until the knot is already tied to tell their friends and family, but most people decide to keep their loved ones in the loop.

Before you figure out how to tell them, you’ll need to decide if you’re inviting any guests to your elopement, and make a guest list. Remember that you can totally elope just the two of you if that feels right, and it’s not about excluding people, it’s just about what kind of wedding day you envision for yourselves!

After you’ve decided on a guest list, decide when and how you want to tell your friends and family that you’re eloping. You probably have some idea of how they’re going to react, so this may affect how you do things. Remember that while it’s important to be kind, it’s also important to stand your ground and remember that this is your wedding day, and every decision you make is entirely yours!

Think About Elopement Dates

The next step in planning your elopement is to think about when you want to tie the knot. You don’t have to put a date on the calendar quite yet, but I do recommend thinking about seasons or a general time frame for when you may want to get married.

If you do have a specific date in mind, like maybe you want to get married on your dating anniversary, there’s a fun date coming up (October 10th–10/10 is always a popular one), or there’s just a date that you have your heart set on, that’s great! But, keeping your options flexible can also help you find the right elopement photographer, as you can work with them to figure out a day that works for everyone.

When you’re thinking about potential dates, seasons are likely going to be the most important consideration, as the weather can change a lot depending on where you tie the knot. Think about if there is anything specific you have in mind for your elopement day, like maybe you love mountain views, or you’re a big fan of the desert, or you have an activity in mind like skiing, or hiking. This will help you decide which season to elope in, because if you love the desert, you know that summer is getting really hot and spring is going to be a much better time for a desert elopement. On the other hand, if you want to open the mountains but you’re not a fan of snow, summer is going to be the best season for you. Come up with a general timeframe or a season, and then when you find your dream photographer, talk to them about what you have in mind and see what works for everyone.

Hire an Elopement Photographer

When it comes to how to elope, booking an elopement photographer should be really close to the very top of your to do list. An elopement photographer isn’t like a traditional wedding photographer – my job isn’t just to document your day, it’s also to help you plan it! This means I’ll be your hype girl, your planning assistant, and your adventure buddy, and once you book with me every other step on this list becomes 1000 times easier. I’ll help you find the perfect location, give you recommendations, tips, and advice, and be your cheerleader as you navigate your decision.

Decide on an Elopement Location

As an elopement photographer, I usually have my couples decide on a general location before the contract is signed. For example a state, a park, or even a region of the country. Then, once you’re booked, the first thing I’ll do is make a personalized list of recommendations just for you! This makes finding the perfect elopement location easy, and I’ll get to know you a little bit to figure out what you’re looking for. Some couples like to hike, some couples prefer locations with no hiking, someone’s mountain views, some love the beach, and there are infinite possibilities for potential elopement locations. So after I get to know you, I’ll keep all these considerations in mind to make sure that the recommendations I gave you are custom tailored to the two of you. You just have to pick from the list, and then we’ll keep planning!

Learn How to Get an Elopement Permit

Right after you decide on your elopement location, I recommend getting your permit. Many parks and outdoor recreation areas require a permit for a ceremony, and the rules vary from place to place. Some places may not require a permit at all, others may only require one for ceremonies over a certain size, and others require a permit even for the tiniest ceremony. 

After we’ve decided on a location, I’ll help you with this – I’ll tell you how to apply for your permit if you need one, contact any park rangers if needed, and let you know where and how to apply. It’s best to do this as early as possible, because some places can be competitive and permits are usually first come first serve. Most locations will start accepting applications as far as a year out, so once you’ve got your elopement location figured out, apply for your permit!

Book Your Other Elopement Vendors

After you’ve found your elopement location, I’ll also send you a list of vendors that I recommend who work in that area. Some couples keep it simple with just a photographer, but you may also want to hire an officiant, a videographer, a florist, a hair and make up artist, caterer, and maybe some other vendors! The vendors you choose will make a huge difference for your elopement day, and many wedding and elopement vendors book up fast – so it’s best to reach out as early as possible to secure your favorites.

Make Travel Plans

If you’re traveling for your elopement, make sure to book flights and accommodations pretty early on. Especially in popular locations, to ensure that you’re able to stay close to your spot, it’s best to make these bookings as soon as possible. When it comes to finding somewhere to stay, I’ll also send you a list of recommendations for cabins, Airbnbs, and places to stay! 

No matter where you elope, I always recommend getting there a little bit early – give yourself at least a day in between getting there and your elopement day to settle in and relax. This will save you a lot of stress in case of any delays or hiccups, and it gives you plenty of time to grocery shop, pick up your marriage license if you need to, and get anything else out of the way before your ceremony.

Shop for Elopement Attire

The next thing on the how to elope checklist is shopping for what you’ll wear. Whether it’s a dress, a suit, or anything else, it’s best to look for your attire at least a few months in advance to ensure that you have time to find the perfect one and that you have time to get it tailored if needed. When you shop for elopement attire, make sure that it’s comfortable, because you’ll likely be moving around a lot on your elopement day (more than you would add a traditional wedding) and you definitely don’t want to be feeling restricted or uncomfortable the entire day.

If you get new shoes, be sure to break them in so that you don’t get blisters on your elopement day! High heels likely won’t be good for most couples, since you’ll be spending some time walking in grass or dirt, so opt for hiking boots or comfy shoes instead.

Get a Marriage License

The process for getting a marriage license can vary depending on where you tie the knot, so it’s best to look this up a little bit earlier. In most places, you can’t apply for the marriage license too early, as they do expire after a certain amount of time. Again, this depends on your location, so I will help you sort all of that out and give you some advice about when to apply!

If you’re eloping abroad, the process can be a little more complicated, and you will likely need to apply earlier to have time to process all the documents, translate anything, and send copies over to the other country. If you’re applying in the US, the process will depend on the state. You need a marriage license to get married in any state, and it needs to be from the state where your elopement ceremony is taking place. Look up the requirements for your location, and don’t wait till the last minute to do this!

Some states (like Washington) will allow you to apply online ahead of time and even get your marriage license by mail, while others require you to come in in person to pick up your marriage license. If you’re traveling out of state for your elopement, be sure to arrive there early if you need to pick up your marriage license, make an appointment if the office allows, so that there are no surprises when you get there!

You will usually need your IDs, some states also require a birth certificate, and there is always a marriage license fee, which can depend on where you get it. One thing to be aware of is that some offices only accept cash, (they’re old-fashioned that way), so be sure to check this ahead of time as well and go to an ATM if you need to.

Finalize the Elopement Timeline

A timeline is important for any wedding day, because it gives you an overview of what you’ll be doing, where you’ll be going, and what’s going on. As your elopement photographer, I’ll handle this as well, and create a custom timeline based on what the two of you want to do! 

I’ll send you some ideas of things to do, you can tell me what sounds like your jam, and I’ll work on creating a schedule for the day. An elopement timeline isn’t supposed to be like a wedding timeline – it’s not supposed to feel stressful or leave you feeling rushed throughout the day. It’s just supposed to give some structure to your day and to let you know what’s going on! I’ll leave plenty of room for spontaneity, make sure you’re never feeling stressed, make sure there’s plenty of extra time for exploring, or traffic, or anything else that may come up. At least a month from your elopement date, I’ll send you the timeline for you to look at, so that we can make sure that we plan a day that’s perfect for the two of you!

This couple decided to elope, and is standing on a rock in Joshua Tree National Park.

Make an Elopement Packing List

As your elopement gets closer, it’s really helpful to write out a list of things to pack. This day is important, and there’s a ton to think about, so it’s really important that you write it down to make sure you don’t forget anything! Some things to put on your list can include your wedding attire, your marriage license, some toiletries, and anything else that you’ll need for your big day, as well as anything that you’ll need if you’re staying in your elopement location.


And then, finally, after all that planning, after all that excitement, it’s time to do the thing! You’re ready to fly, drive, hike, helicopter, or a little bit of everything to your dream location, where you’ll spend the day exploring with the love of your life, tie the knot with an intimate, personal ceremony that you’ll remember forever, and you’ll be married!

Eloping is all about making sure that your wedding day is about the two of you, so from personalizing the details, to incorporating your unique quirks and personalities, I’ll be by your side to make sure your day is everything you dreamed of – and more! If you’re ready for an adventurous, one-of-a-kind wedding day, contact me – let’s talk about what you want for your wedding day.

After deciding to elope, this couple is standing on the beach celebrating their adventurous day!