Couple elopes on durable surfaces in the Mount Baker Wilderness

Have you heard of Leave No Trace? If you haven’t, it is a set of ethics & best practices that we should follow, so that we can all protect the outdoors and enjoy it as long as possible. It’s important to know about these best practices if you plan to elope in nature, so that you and future couples can have the best experience.

The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has a set of 7 minimum-impact principles, that help guide our decisions when we’re outside:

Those principles are:

  1. Plan Ahead & Prepare
  2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of other Visitors

I’d like to give you some examples of each principle and how they can apply to your elopement. I am sharing this information because I love nature so much. I want you to be able to enjoy and elope in our National Parks, Forests and neighborhood trails forever.

Plan ahead and prepare to be ready for any kind of weather, this couple eloped during a springtime snow storm

Plan Ahead And Prepare

Planning and preparing is one of the most important things to do for an elopement and especially when it comes to eloping in nature. Wherever you decide to elope most likely has rules and my job, as your elopement photographer, is to understand those rules and which ones are related to Leave No Trace principles.

Some of the things you want to think about when picking a location and date are:

  • Have you selected a location that is easy to get to or requires special equipment or training?
  • Is the area popular? Do you want to plan your special day on a weekday or during off season, such as early in the morning or wintertime?
  • How many people are you including, and will they all be able to stand on durable surfaces in the area that you’ve selected?
  • What happens if the weather changes? Are you still able to hold your event in rainy or snowy conditions?  Do you have an alternative location that meets all of your requirements?

The picture above was taken during a springtime elopement.  Just days before their elopement, the weather changed. We had to adjust our plans and attire to ensure we were warm, safe and everyone could still participate. The Groom’s Mother made this beautiful shawl for the bride and it kept her warm all day (and looked beautiful in photos)!  They also wore warm leggings/long underwear and heavy-duty boots. Because we were prepared, we were able to do everything we’d planned the entire day, and everyone stayed warm and safe.

Travel on durable surfaces to leave no trace during your elopement

Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces

This is such an important Leave No Trace principle because this is where you will or won’t physically leave your trace…or footprints…in nature. No one is perfect when it comes to determining what is a durable surface, but we must do our best!

If a surface is rocky, sandy or is made up of gravel, that is probably the safest surface to walk and stand upon.  When it’s snowy, as long as the snow layer is of sufficient depth to prevent vegetation damage, you should be safe and not damaging what is underneath.

It is never good to go off trail. That includes walking on cryptobiotic crust (living soil often found in the desert), desert puddles, mud holes and fragile vegetation, such as moss, alpine meadows, wildflower fields, and other fragile plants.  Stepping or standing on these surfaces kills them and it may take hundreds of years for them to come back in the same state. In some cases, they may never come back.

What this means for your elopement is that you should carefully watch where you walk and where you stand for the First Look, Ceremony, First Dance, picnic and all other activities.  It only takes a few moments to do this and makes such a positive impact. As your elopement photographer, I will have scouted out safe places to stand with amazing views in advance. 

For camping, parks and wilderness areas have designated camp sites or predetermined spaces in the backcountry. You will need to make a reservation in advance to ensure you have a designated spot for camping. With the proper planning and preparation, you will have an awesome elopement and feel good about leaving the area the same or better than you found it!

Bride carries floral bouquet down the trail to get married

Dispose of Waste Properly

Have you ever started off on a hike and the first thing you see is trash around the trailhead or in the foliage along the trail? Doesn’t it just ruin your day? You can’t get those visuals out of your head. On your elopement day, you don’t want to see that trash on your hike and definitely not have it in your pictures.

Waste isn’t just things like paper products or food wrappers. Waste can also be items you brought along, such as the flowers in your bouquet. Introducing non-native species of flowers and seeds to an area, like a delicate wildflower field, can ruin the land. Most National Parks have rules as part of their Permit process stating that you can only have floral bouquets made with native or dried flowers. This is an important part of your elopement planning and you want to know this as soon as possible, so that you can choose a knowledgeable vendor and pick appropriate flowers that you will love being part of your photographs. If you do drop petals during your day, we will pick them up and pack them out in a backpack.

I always have a trash bag and disposable gloves with me, so we can leave no trace of our waste and also pick up what others may have left behind.

Couple sits on ground behind purple wildflowers at Mount Rainier National Park as the sun sets

Leave What You Find

We all love souvenirs, but it’s important to remember that if everyone took a rock from the coast or a wildflower from a field, we would alter the environment and future visitors wouldn’t see the same beauty that we love.  This is where taking a photograph makes the most sense.  Ask your photographer to take a photograph of you near your favorite wildflowers or along that beautiful beach.  As an example, the couple above was sitting on a gravel area just beyond the purple wildflowers. We took several pictures of them near the wildflowers and now they have a permeant memory of the beautiful wildflowers highlighted by the sunset glow. If you leave what you find, you have a better chance to leave no trace.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

As we see the effects of wildfires across the western half of the United States, how to handle campfires in nature is even more important. There are designated camping areas for a reason. They have typically been cleared of items that will burn easily. They may also have a fire ring already established and all you need to do is find some dry tinder and you’re ready to warm up your dinner…and your toes.

I want to add smoke bombs to this principle. In California in the summer of 2020, we saw the devastating effects of one smoke bomb. There are other fun ways to get a similar effect, such as popping sparkling water or tossing colorful leaves that you’ve found on the ground.

As global warming worsens, we will likely see very strict restrictions or bans on campfires, so make sure that you talk with the local ranger for the rules and regulations.

Couple eloping in Mount Rainier National Park watches deer feed in the field

Respect Wildlife

We are borrowing this land from the wildlife. This is their home and we must respect it. If you’re lucky enough to see wildlife on your elopement day, make sure to stay a safe distance away and get a photograph of them. For the safety of the animal, it’s important to never try to approach, follow or feed them. Some wildlife has been trained that if they approach a human, they will get food. You want everyone to have a safe day on your elopement, so it’s best to resist the urge to feed them and thus, they will also watch you from a safe distance. This is very applicable to leave no trace because if you teach an animal that they can get food from a human, they may lose their hunting instincts and then go hungry when the humans aren’t around.

Be Considerate of other Visitors

Nature is for everyone, so we must be considerate of the other visitors who are also excited about being in the same place as you’ve chosen for your elopement.  You most likely want to have a private area to yourselves on your elopement day. To help do that, plan your wedding for a weekday, very early in the morning or off-season. Not only does that give you more privacy, but it also allows you to hear the sounds of nature and probably see more wildlife. There is also more chance that you don’t need to wait in line to stand in a certain area or have 100 of your new best friends in the photographs.

I enjoy finding those places that are less known, but have epic views, so that you have an elopement location that is uniquely yours. When we do explore those lesser known places, it’s even more important to leave no trace. We may be one of the only humans who visit that area and we don’t want to ruin it for others who are lucky enough to find it in the future.

Photographer stands on trail near the top of Mount Hood on a sunny day

Stacy is an experienced Washington Elopement Photography and Leave No Trace Aware Photographer. She feels passionately about the Leave No Trace principles because she loves nature and wants these places to be available for everyone. This blog touches on the Leave No Trace principles and is intended to provide you with some tips on how you can incorporate Leave No Trace principles into your elopement.  If you want to incorporate these principles into your elopement, contact Stacy to be your elopement photographer. She will help you understand how to apply these principles to your elopement and carry them forward in your life.

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  1. So many great and practical examples on how to implement Leave No Trace in your sessions! It’s more important than EVER right now!

  2. I love this so much Stacy! Definitely crucial information for anyone who enjoys the outdoors, but especially important to prioritize on your wedding day when your photos will last a lifetime and potentially influence others. Very well written and accompanied by gorgeous photos — great job!

  3. Such an informative post on how to apply leave no trace principles to your outdoor elopement. Such an important thing to discuss and educate on!