How to Plan an Elopement

First thing first to remember when asking how to plan an elopement: It doesn’t need to be complicated and it should be stress-free + easygoing. After all, it’s a day to reflect your union and you get to do anything! But with that said, many couples still need help putting a day together and figuring out the best times for photos and one of the first questions is how long it should be.

A common misconception is that elopements are quick, and back in the day when elopements were only Vegas overnight chapel trips, maybe. But, that has long changed. If a traditional wedding day is an all day event, why can’t yours be? Your wedding day is your love story. You’re planning an experience and you deserve to celebrate your marriage. An elopement doesn’t make it any less meaningful than a traditional wedding.

There are no rules when it comes to planning an elopement wedding (except like permits and stuff) and the only thing that truly matters is what is important to you.  

What do you two enjoy doing together and where are your best memories together? What have you always dreamed of doing? Would you like to have your hair and makeup done for you or would you prefer to do it yourself? Would you like to make a meal together, go out to a restaurant, or how about an outdoor picnic? And do you want some family and friends or will it just be you two in private? These are things to consider. So now, how can you incorporate these meaningful moments into your wedding day? 

When putting together a timeline, it’s easy to jam your day with loads of activities because this is all so exciting! However, having a packed timeline can create more stress. Because I want your wedding day to be a breeze for you to fully enjoy, I’ve compiled some tips to support the logistic on how to plan an elopement:

Plan an elopement with meaningful experiences

In the early stages of planning your elopement it can be easy to start scheduling a day filled with exciting hikes, locations, and loads of activities. However, this often leads to a day that’s just as stressful and packed as a traditional wedding. My goal as your photographer is to help you slow down and be present on your day. So while it’s tempting to fit in multiple locations, trails, and views–try to limit to 1-3 major activities throughout the day.

Transition times

Viewpoints are often 1-2 hours between each other or even from your Airbnb. Factor in the amount of drive time being added to your timeline, also if you’ll be driving slower on the mountains, if it’s your first time visiting the area, if you want to make stops along the way, etc.

Add cushion time

Think of your timeline as an outline so everyone’s on the same page. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. What if you want to stop for photos along your drive, if you’re just running late, need more time to change, hair and makeup took longer than expected.. and so on. Plan extra time in between activities throughout the day so you won’t have to worry if there are any setbacks.

Ceremony lighting and time

Sunrise and sunset

Most tourists and hikers will reach the trailhead or begin their activities between 8:00 am – 9:30 am. To create more intimate moments for private vow exchanges, first looks, or ceremonies, I like to hike up to a viewpoint right before sunrise. This is typically the most private way to experience the view.

In case of mishaps, a “back-up” sunset hike can be planned. Sunset often lasts longer than sunrise and tends to be more colorful on a clear day. It is a busier time of day and if you’d like to avoid the crowd, a longer hike or reserved area can help.

Late mornings and afternoons

Mid-day is notorious for being the worst lighting for photos. We can save the mid-day for a break. lunch, or any activity you’d like. On overcast days the lighting will be fine for photos as it blocks the harsh rays! If we see that your elopement day is overcast and your timeline is flexible, we may be able to move things around to avoid hiking in the dark (if hiking is on the agenda).

With those tips in mind, you have a foundation on how to plan an elopement. Now we begin to brainstorm and put together activities to fill your elopement day.

Plan an elopement considering these elements:


Every wedding day starts with getting ready! This can be having breakfast, packing up your things before hitting the trail, putting on your wedding attire, hair and makeup, etc. This is when you can hardly contain the butterflies and when you’ll look back at your photos remembering the anticipation before the best day ever. Some couples opt to get ready together or separately. If getting ready apart, you’ll get to see what your partner was doing at this time in your gallery, the excitement on their face, finishing their vows, preparing a gift, and completely in all smiles.


When we plan an elopement, I highly recommend doing a “first look” if you aren’t getting ready together. This is the part where you see each other dressed in your wedding attire for the first time and a first look can happen anywhere! You two can get ready on opposite sides of the car, backs turned, in separate rooms, etc. Then I’ll have one of you with your back turned so the other can walk up behind to tap them on the shoulder and turn around. Another option is to stand back to back and turn around at the same time. I’ve also seen couples hold hands, face to face, and open their eyes on the count of three. A first look offers a very private and intimate moment for you two just before your ceremony, if you’re planning to have one. This is where the “holy crap we’re getting married” feeling soaks in!


The main activity everyone thinks of when it comes to weddings. The ceremony can be from 10-30 minutes long and it can be as simple as just the I Do’s, or vow reading and exchange of rings, to incorporating any cultural or religious traditions. Your ceremony can be just the two of you or have your guests there. Ceremonial activities can include: warming of the rings, coin exchange, hand-fasting, sand pouring, lighting a unity candle, plant a tree together, take a shot, and many more.


If having guests on your wedding day is important to you, you’ll likely want to take some photos with them. How long this takes depends on the amount of guests attending. I recommend allowing 2-3 minutes per group combination. If time allows, you can provide your photographer a list of group combinations, with singles, and group photos. Here’s an example of what a photo list can look like for our imaginary couple, Alex and Anna:

  • Alex and Anna + Alex Mom
  • Alex + Mom
  • Alex and Anna + Alex Dad
  • Alex + Dad
  • Alex and Anna + Alex Parents
  • (repeat with siblings)
  • (repeat for Anna parents)


We’ll be taking photos throughout the day for you to remember all the moments of your elopement day, but reserving a time for you to take photos right after your ceremony will give you a chance to pause and relish in the emotions. We will take a few formal portraits, but I will guide you through natural movements and we’ll portray the two of you as you are. Prioritizing at least one hour of your day for romantic portraits will provide you with a period of peace to enjoy together.


The vow exchange can totally be separate from your ceremony. If you have guests, you may read your vows in private while reserving the I Do’s for the ceremony. A vow exchange can be trading love notes, gifts, or traditional hand-written letters. This is the moment we all cry. This is where you pour your love into spoken words and you share just how much they mean to you. How much all the time you have spent together is valuable. How they have shaped your life for the better. And you share your promises to be there for one another.


The activities you choose are what make your wedding day unique and true to you. You have complete freedom to choose what you’d love to do together or with guests. Here are some ideas:

make a meal together
private letter readings
yoga session
go swimming
smudge ceremony
culture or religious traditions
horseback riding
exchange gifts

So there you have it and these are just your starting points. Because this is your day to be entirely about you and I’m here to document it. I’m not here to make the entire day a photoshoot and make you pose. I’ll be tagging along and capturing your love story. Contact me today so we can get started on creating your dream elopement timeline.

I’m Karen, a California adventure elopement photographer who empowers couples to create memories that will last a lifetime. I am dedicated to providing the tools you need to push the boundaries of tradition and create an unforgettable experience. 

I help all couples worldwide by providing personalized location lists, planning resources, vendor recommendations, permits, timeline-curation, and much more to curate elopement days that will be cherished forever.

Here's to co-creating an unforgettable elopement experience.


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