| September 19, 2020

How to Plan an Intimate Wedding

Table of Contents

Have you been considering an elopement, but you’re not 100% on board with a just-us wedding? Maybe the big traditional party was never your dream, or maybe circumstances have changed and an elopement is beginning to sound like your preferred kind of celebration – but, you can’t imagine getting married without some family and friends! You’re stuck somewhere in the middle – you don’t want the big wedding, and a two-person elopement also doesn’t sound exactly right – you’re looking for an intimate wedding! Intimate weddings (also called micro-weddings) are intentionally small celebrations with only a handful of guests in attendance. 

A bride and groom celebrate at the end of their wedding ceremony on the beach while their family and friends cheer by their side.

This might come as a surprise to those who’ve been following our photography for a while, but actually HALF of Adventure Instead’s couples bring their family along on their wedding day. It might look like most of our couples have epic two-person elopements, but a lot actually plan intimate wedding ceremonies! Micro-weddings can still be incredibly intentional, authentic celebrations that don’t distract from what we love so much about elopements – it’s all about the couple and THEIR wedding day!

There are so many reasons a couple would want to have an intimate wedding instead of a two-person elopement – but none of those reasons reduce the beauty and adventure of the experience! Couples who want to ditch the stress of a traditional wedding, without also saying ‘goodbye’ to a guest list would seriously love an intimate wedding. If this sounds like you, keep reading!

What is an Intimate Wedding?

Is it a big elopement, or a small wedding? Well, it’s both!

Google “intimate wedding” and you’ll see a variety of results, with all different “limits” on group size, and really conflicting information. We’ve heard plenty of people refer to 80-person events as “intimate” weddings, and that’s not exactly what we do here. It really depends on what you consider a “big” wedding, but an intimate wedding is essentially just a wedding with a very small guest count. At Adventure Instead we consider marriage celebrations with 10-25 guests to be “intimate.”

There really is no official number that takes a celebration from being an “elopement” to being a “wedding.” However, we think what is more important than the guest count is the intention behind the experience – traditional weddings are often stressful events with less focus on the couple and more focus on the party. An intimate wedding can have all the best things about an elopement while still inviting guests – celebrations focused on the couple, their vision for the day, and without the structured traditions associated with big weddings. Of course, an intimate wedding can also feel just like a big, traditional wedding with fewer people, but that’s not usually what the couples we work with are looking for. Even our couples who bring guests are looking for an authentic, true-to-them marriage experience that is uniquely personalized to their dreams.

A bride and groom have an intimate wedding ceremony in the mountains with their family and friends.

Tips for Curating a Smaller Guest List

At least once a week we hop on the phone with a couple who want to get married, and they’re working through the question, “do we want this day to be just us, or do we want guests?” They’re trying to find the balance between their vision for an adventurous outdoor wedding, and their love of close friends and family. Trust us, you’re not alone with this question!

If you’ve decided to plan an intimate wedding with a few guests, one of the hardest parts can be curating that smaller guest list. To help you out, we’ve compiled a list of the best tips we’ve learned over the year, plus great advice from our past couples! Hopefully this can help you find some clarity as you decide who to invite:

  1. Talk to your partner: Sit down with your partner and really think about your guest list. Talk through how you each feel about potential attendees – are you both close to them, do they support both of you, does inviting one person likely cause tension with someone else?
  2. Set boundaries & expectations: Set boundaries early and don’t feel inclined to invite someone if you don’t want to. During the planning process, you may find it easier to just elope. There are so many ways to celebrate with family and friends later. But, don’t let one individual be the reason you decide to scrap the whole list. Know your breaking points for certain decisions, and stick with those boundaries. 
  3. Stick to your limit: Maybe your guest list is limited by your location, or maybe you’re keeping it even with your partner & inviting the same number of people. Whatever you used as a limiter, stick to it! Feel free to use this as an excuse too – like, you can’t just add more people if your ceremony location has a 20-person limit. 
  4. Be honest: If someone asks if they’re coming, and you know they aren’t making the list, don’t be wishy-washy. Just be honest with people in your life, and don’t feel the need to extend an apology or invitation based on their reaction. This is YOUR day, you don’t owe anyone a seat at the table
  5. Listen to the experts: No one knows better how it feels to be in your position than other couples – Here is some advice from over fifty of our couples on how to tell friends and family that you’re having an intimate wedding…and they aren’t invited.
A bride and groom ride on the back of an automobile while their family and friends sit in the front while waving at the camera.

Tips for Planning an Intimate Wedding

In the case of weddings, bigger is not always better. At the end of the day, doing what is best for  you is really what “eloping” is all about, whether you invite guests or not. An intimate wedding can be just as special and intentional as an elopement – you just have to keep the important things in the forefront as you plan this thing! To help get you started, here are some tips for planning an intimate wedding:

  1. Keep it all in perspective: ALL this planning is for one day. Yes, it is an extremely important day & one you should be looking forward to immensely, but it’s still just one day in a beautiful life. The most important people there are you and your partner, so if you’re getting extremely stressed out over a guest list, or people are giving you a hard time over their status on said list, take a deep breath & remember what is most important.
  2. Remember that you deserve your dream wedding: Everyone deserves their dream wedding! You deserve your dream wedding more than guests “deserve” to be present – it sounds harsh, but it’s true. If it’s between your joy, or the joy of your guests, we’re going to advocate for YOU every time.
  3. Make a list: Check it twice, or thrice. Hence the manner in which you’re reading this advice right now, we LOVE lists! Make lists of your wants, your priorities, your potential guests, and everything else you’re considering as part of your wedding day. Get out that red pen & take notes – a lot of clarity can come from simply writing things down.
  4. Let big decisions guide the little things: Once you’ve made some big choices, like date & location, let that guide the little choices left to make as you finalize plans. If you try to have the little things inform the big decisions, you’re going to have a hard time getting anywhere. You need to decide for yourself what is big & what is small – then avoid giving power to the things that don’t matter as much.
  5. You don’t have to limit your celebration: Weddings don’t have to be single-day parties! If it’s really tearing you in two to want an elopement AND a day with your loved ones, plan a post-elopement reception. Even if you do invite some guests to an intimate wedding, but also want a day to mingle with distant relatives & more friends – no one is going to say “no” to a second celebration of your marriage!
A bride and groom stand in front of a fire with their family and friends while roasting marshmallows.

How to Plan an Intimate Wedding

Now that you have some ideas and perspectives for getting through the planning process, we have simple 4 steps to turn this dream wedding into reality. Theory is great for deciding what you WANT, but now it’s time to ACT. How does a couple go from deciding they want an intimate wedding celebration to making it happen? Well, it all starts with an inquiry: 

  1. Pick a Date: This is all you need to get booked, but you can reach out with no date or location. Part of our job as elopement photographers is helping you figure out the details – but that means we don’t expect you to come with all questions answered. In our first phone call, we’ll discuss dates & the pros/cons of certain dates in certain locations. Once you’re ready to commit, we can book your date & get going!
  2. Choose a Location: This usually happens after a couple books us – we go through extensive consultation to talk about the reasons why certain locations are best at different times of year, what activities are accessible during certain seasons, and what sort of experience you can expect from choose to have a wedding in this place. Once you feel confident this is your perfect place to say “I do,” we’ll move on to figuring out if you need a permit or other permissions. 
  3. Finalize Details: Hire other vendors (officiant, florist, HMUA, etc.), and get your ducks in a row! Make sure you have attire, decor, and rentals lined up for your date in your location. This is also a great chance to discuss location requirements with guests who will be attending – make sure they understand any Leave No Trace requirements, and are properly prepared for the weather & terrain.
  4. Have FUN: Nothing left to do except have a memorable stress-free wedding day. You’ve done everything you needed to prepare for this moment, now is the time to take a deep breath, ground yourself, and be fully present to celebrate!

Intimate Wedding Venue Ideas

Location options for where you get married outdoors do become limited when you invite more people. The more guests that need to be coordinated, the less likely it is that we can get into places requiring technical hiking skills, altitude preparation, or even just the ability to gather at a viewpoint. Many elopements and intimate weddings we photograph occur in gorgeous outdoor spaces, but the places we go with couples who bring guests are often different than the places we take couples who elope just the two of them. The locations that take a big group aren’t any less beautiful, but they are often much less private. Requiring a more open ceremony spot and easier accessibility does directly correlate to more foot traffic on those trails during the busy summer months. If you want a totally private wedding ceremony out in nature, but you want to bring guests, you might want to consider a weekday or off-season date. Or, you might want to get creative! We’ll list some of our favorite intimate wedding venue ideas below:

  1. National Park Designated Ceremony Locations: The spaces within national parks that are set up to be designated wedding ceremony spots are often accessible, beautiful, and well-maintained. The downside to all those great benefits is that these places are rarely private. However, choosing a strategic date and ceremony time will give you a better chance of avoiding the crowds.
  2. Backyard Weddings: Renting a really awesome cabin, or maybe taking over the backyard of a relative who has a gorgeous property is a great way of ensuring you can have a totally private ceremony with your guests. The benefit of this style of ceremony is the ease and accessibility – plus, you’re always welcome to sneak away for some epic couples portraits if you’ve chosen a rental near a beautiful lookout or trail! Backyard weddings can truly be the best of both worlds – wake up early for an adventurous morning with your partner out in nature, then come back to celebrate and have a ceremony in a safe space with your loved ones.
  3. Local Parks & Trails: Depending on where you live, or where you want to get married, state parks and trails are often maintained to handle a high volume of foot traffic, which means you can get out in nature with your guests without disrupting the environment in fragile spaces. City parks, beaches, and other recreation areas make great places to meet family for a ceremony – without having to travel far away from amenities as well!
  4. Beaches: One of our favorite intimate wedding locations is simply the beach – rocky Pacific northwest beaches, or sandy California coves, the ease & ability to circle around or even set up chairs for guests makes this an ideal spot to get married. You don’t have any foliage to tiptoe through, and no one needs to hike single-file on trail. You can also find a private beach ceremony location if you search a bit – we know dozens of places along the west coast that are not highly trafficked and are perfect for an elopement with guests!
A bride and groom read their vows in the mountains nearby a lake with their family and friends standing by their side.

Intimate Wedding Ceremony Ideas

When you’re getting married with guests, the ceremony can include your loved ones. You can still get married in an epic outdoor location and have a wedding party – they’re just standing with you on uneven terrain with a gorgeous backdrop instead of on the carpeted stairs of a church. It’s totally up to you how involved your guests are! You can speak your vows openly in front of everyone, or to the side for your partner’s ears only. Your marriage ceremony doesn’t have to be any different because you have guests, but it’s also a fun opportunity to involve people to whatever extent you want. Here are a few fun ideas to turn your wedding ceremony into a bit more than just exchanging vows:

  1. Have a friend officiate – How you get married legally is dependent upon where your marriage license is from, but it’s possible to have a friend officiate your ceremony whether they are or are not ordained. There are ways to get ordained online if your friend or family member is interested, or you can step aside and say the necessary sentences to sign the paper with us (we’re all ordained) and then have anyone lead the ceremony.
  2. Perform a unity ritual – Handfasting, mixing sand, planting a tree, hand laying, or any other number of unity ceremonies can be a fun way to involve loved ones in your wedding. Family members can help you perform the ritual by laying the cords across your hands, or participate by speaking words of encouragement over the union. Even if your guests aren’t directly involved, a unity ceremony can be a really fun way to have a meaningful ceremony that they get to witness.
  3. Invite guests to write letters – This is something you can involve as part of the ceremony, or something you can share afterward. Having a physical letter from your loved ones to hold onto as the years pass can be a beautiful way to bring yourself back to your wedding day and remember how much support you have from your friends & family.
  4. Invite the talent – Do you have a musically inclined cousin? How about an extremely artistic brother? Live music can be a super fun way to get your family involved in your ceremony by playing songs to set the mood, make everyone happy cry, and bring a beautiful layer to an already incredible day. Creating art together is also a fun way to get everyone involved and produce something you can look at for years to come!

Whether you invite guests or not – call your marriage celebration an intimate wedding, micro-wedding, or elopement – what is most important is that YOU get to experience your dream wedding with exactly the people you want present. 

Are you ready to begin planning this thing? We’d love to help!

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Maddie Mae

Elopement Photographer

& Planning Consultant

Three photographers

About us

Adventure Instead

Your Elopement Photographers & Planning Consultants. We are Maddie Mae, Amber, and Tori. We're your photographers, your elopement consultants, your cheerleaders, and your go-to adventure buddy on the day you say your vows.

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