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SMALL WEDDING IDEAS: PLANNING THE PERFECT ELOPEMENT
Small wedding, micro wedding, intimate wedding, or elopement – there are so many labels out there describing a marriage celebration with only a few guests in attendance. No matter what you call it, we love small weddings! For the sake of simplicity, let’s start by defining exactly what a small wedding is:
Small weddings are intentional, miniature wedding celebrations usually stripped of the stress and grandeur of a traditional wedding for the sake of sharing an authentic experience with your closest friends and family.
We photograph small weddings and elopements with up to 25 people present. You don’t have to elope just the two of you to have a true-to-you experience; though we’ll be the first to admit that the smaller the group is, the easier it is to plan a wedding. But if you’ve got an incredible group of people supporting you, sharing your wedding experience with them can truly add to what is already an amazing day!
Think you might prefer a small wedding celebration? Maybe the idea of a big wedding has just become too stressful, and it’s time to simplify things. Maybe you’ve never aligned with the traditional nature of a large wedding celebration, and you’re trying to plan something more true-to-you. Whatever your reasoning for being here, we want to help! We’ve photographed hundreds of small weddings and elopements, so we’ve got quite a few ideas to help you plan your perfect small wedding ceremony.
It’s extremely important to us that couples getting married have the resources and support to realize their unique wedding vision. That’s why we started Adventure Instead! Together, we advocate for couples to choose whatever kind of celebration is right for them. Begin by asking yourself, “if I wasn’t trying to please anyone else’s expectations, what kind of wedding would I want?” The answer to that question is where we start planning –
IS A SMALL WEDDING RIGHT FOR YOU?
It’s scary to break tradition – we know! So much is marketed to young people, especially young women and girls, telling them they need the biggest, newest and best at their wedding. The traditional wedding industry thrives on competition and insecurities, always trying to convince us that we won’t be happy unless we have the latest___ (insert: dress, venue, food, DJ, florals, etc.)
People are beginning to wake up to the idea that bigger isn’t always better, but we’re aware traditional weddings aren’t going away anytime soon. Instead, we want to help couples realize their dreams by shutting out the noise, ignoring the judgments and comparisons, and listening to their hearts. As cheesy as it sounds, you already know what kind of wedding you want – you just have to open yourself up to your most honest desires!
Start by rewinding everything you think you know about weddings. Everything you can think of that begins with “I’m supposed to…” Pause, because that’s not true! If it’s something you want to do at your wedding, you of course can! But you aren’t supposed to do anything – everything that happens on a wedding day is something you get to do. Re-framing your marriage experience as something you’re in total control of will make it a much more fun day for you and your partner!
SMALL WEDDINGS VS. ELOPEMENTS
So, what really is a small wedding, and how is it different from an elopement? The truth is, the difference is mostly in the vernacular. We’ve witnessed small weddings with a handful of guests that felt every bit like an elopement, because the couple did exactly what they wanted! We’ve also photographed small weddings that felt like mini traditional weddings, because the couple chose to have the structure and timeline founded on tradition. Picture this – a wedding with 25 guests where the couple hired a wedding planner, DJ, caterer, and followed all the “firsts” from the kiss to the dance. That’s one way to have a small wedding!
The most common similarity between small weddings and elopements we photograph is the couple’s desire to celebrate outdoors. Nature is fragile, and we follow Leave No Trace principles whenever applicable. A 200-person wedding in an alpine field wouldn’t align with our outdoor ethics, but a 10-person wedding party hiking to a viewpoint won’t damage the environment if everyone has an eco-friendly mindset. Protecting the natural spaces we work in is essential, and many eloping couples we work with agree!
There’s also the logistics of getting married outdoors that often shorten the guest list. Many trails or ceremony locations have a limit on the foot traffic allowed there at one time. This especially applies to national park weddings, ceremonies in fragile wilderness environments, and destination elopements. If you’re an especially outdoorsy couple, you’ll want to be sure your guests are prepared and capable of handling the activities in your chosen environment. Don’t assume anyone trained for elevation – trust me.
If you want to get married outside, a small wedding would be perfect for you! Whether you want only a couple guests or 25, call it an elopement or a wedding, getting married in nature is an especially intentional and memorable way to get married.
REASONS TO PLAN A SMALL WEDDING
There are many reasons to plan a small wedding – budget, venue, family dynamics, avoiding stress, the ability to be intentional and detail-oriented, and especially the freedom to have fun! Most weddings happen in a small time frame. You’ll likely be celebrating over the course of a day or weekend, and the number of people in attendance drastically affects your ability to do it all in that timeline! Think about it this way: If you had siblings growing up, you know how much longer it took to get anywhere. Someone was always forgetting something, had to use the restroom again, needed a snack, etc. Leaving the house took multiple attempts each time!
Now imagine wrangling dozens of people for your wedding (add alcohol to the mix and the analogy to toddlers becomes even more real). Someone will always be late, something will always get missed, and someone will always be disappointed. Make sure the person disappointed on your wedding day isn’t you.
Planning a major event is hard for anyone – and it’s especially hard for couples who are eager to please! You’ve probably never planned a party for hundreds of people before, and while in theory it sounds wonderful to get everyone you love together on your wedding day – it’s simply impossible to have meaningful interactions with hundreds of people in a day. You’re much better off taking the time to celebrate with friends and family at another time, when you aren’t simultaneously trying to marry the love of your life.
Keeping the guest list small gives you the opportunity to really connect with those who are in attendance – sharing one of the most important days of your life with people who support you doing things whichever way is authentic to you! But narrowing down a guest list can be hard, so we’ve created a checklist for planning small weddings that can help you feel like you aren’t leaving out anyone!
ADVICE FOR KEEPING THE GUEST LIST SMALL
- Use your location as a way to narrow down the list – be practical & considerate of the environment you’ll be bringing people in to.
- Curate your guest list based on who you want to be there, instead of who you think is expected to be there.
- Explain to those who aren’t coming why a small celebration is important to you.
- Plan ways to help those who aren’t coming feel included – have phone calls, video calls, or spend quality time with them leading up to or following your wedding.
- Prioritize your well being. Don’t invite people who aren’t supportive of you, your relationship, or your choices. Even if it’s a close family member, remember this is your day – don’t invite negativity or judgment.
SMALL WEDDINGS OPEN UP YOUR OPTIONS FOR OUTDOOR VENUES
Planning a small wedding gives you the option to choose an incredibly beautiful non-traditional venue! Unless it’s a field on someone’s private property, we cannot think of a single location outdoors that can support hundreds of wedding guests. If you want mountain views or desert rock formations in the background of your wedding photos, you’re going to have to plan a small wedding. It’s impossible to get more than a handful of people to the Taft Point overlook in Yosemite National Park, or even more than a dozen on the valley floor. There’s nothing wrong with choosing a more accessible location (like your backyard), but the most epic elopement locations you’ve seen pictured on social media can only be accessed responsibly by small groups of people. Planning a small wedding gives you the opportunity to choose whatever epic location is your dream wedding venue!
Why can’t I have a bigger wedding outdoors? What if I get married outside a national park, or on BLM land? There aren’t visitor restrictions everywhere…
Great question! First, we’d like to note that not all places that deserve to be protected are under the protection of federal or state laws. Just because you can technically get away with something on public land, doesn’t mean you should. We’ve witnessed first-hand what happens to fragile environments when large groups of people go off-trail or aren’t properly prepared. Without going into too much detail, many national forests or BLM areas don’t have established bathroom facilities. Alpine soil and deserts don’t have the microbiomes necessary to break down human poop. So, unless you’re ready to tell all your guests they’re going to have to bag it, and pack it out… Enough said.
SMALL WEDDINGS ARE EASIER TO PLAN
Planning a small wedding is so much easier than planning a big, traditional wedding! Everything from the size of the venue to the number of plates at the reception – a small wedding or elopement will relieve a lot of stress. Each additional person invited means catering to their dietary or physical needs (especially if you’re planning an outdoor activity like a hike), trying to dedicate time to spend with them throughout the day, and coordinating any travel if you’re eloping at a destination. A small wedding reduces your checklist while also simultaneously providing so much value to what you do include! Those who are present at your ceremony won’t be straining to see while seated 10 rows back, they’ll be standing off to the side where you can look over and see the happy tears in their eyes.
Smaller weddings are also less likely to be overrun by family drama (this isn’t guaranteed, but we’re hopeful)! Family dynamics are complicated, and inviting everyone can get a bit messy when there are divorced parents, new spouses, step kids, or significant others who expect to be invited as well. In a perfect world, people will set aside their differences to be present and support you on the day you commit your life to your partner. But, this isn’t a perfect world. People have feelings that crop up at inopportune times and can get in the way of your ideal experience. This might sound harsh – but you don’t owe anyone an invitation to your wedding! Don’t let others’ emotions hijack your wedding day, and if that means reducing the number of people invited to avoid drama – do it!
FOCUS ON THE DETAILS BY PRIORITIZING WHAT MATTERS MOST
Planning a small wedding instead of a big wedding means you can invest that budget into details that matter to you! Instead of filling up a dance hall with decoration, you’re filling up a backpack. What you wear, what you eat, and what you surround yourself with is an investment in how you remember your wedding day – choose details that align with your goals, your desires, and reflect your relationship.
Something people don’t talk about enough when it comes to planning a wedding is the budget. “Budget” is the word that comes up when you’re talking to vendors and squirming a little because you’ve never spent this much money one a single day in your life – but this is your wedding! We’ll never suggest anyone spend more on a wedding than they are comfortable with, but it’s hard to look at the cost of an average wedding in the United States (over $30,000) and not think many people would prefer to spend less. But when you’re planning a traditional wedding, the numbers add up fast. The average catered meal is $40-$60 per person, not counting drinks, and suddenly you’ve just spent $9,000 feeding 150 people a mediocre meal! Venues begin around $5,000 for a day and go up to tens of thousands of dollars if they’re all-inclusive. At some point, the numbers get so large that they don’t feel real anymore. What if you could just avoid those costs?
You can do a lot with your wedding budget when you plan a small wedding instead! Invest in the things and experiences you want to have, rather than the stuff expected at a traditional wedding. One of the comments we hear often from couples planning elopements is that they value experiences more than things, and they felt all the stuff piling up while planning a traditional wedding didn’t feel true to their values. For example, a lot of what you’re paying for with a traditional wedding turns to waste when the celebration is over. The average wedding produces 400-600 pounds of trash in a single day! Most of that is single-use plastics. A small outdoor wedding significantly reduces waste and cost. If you’re getting married in a national park there will be a photography and special events fee – probably around $300. But that’s way less than the $5,000 people often spend on poorly lit dance halls! And instead of bagging up the paper tablecloths and plastic decor to be trashed the next day, your mountain backdrop will be there to visit for the rest of your lives!
Want some ideas for free or low cost wedding venues? Check out these lists of outdoor locations!
SMALL WEDDING IDEAS: CEREMONIES, RECEPTIONS, DETAILS & FOOD
National parks are definitely growing in popularity amongst people choosing to elope! Search #AdventureElopement and you’ll find dozens of images of Yosemite, Redwoods, Sequoia, or Rocky Mountain National Park. That’s just in California! The United States is home to dozens of national parks perfect for your outdoor wedding – we’ll discuss whatever permits you may need once you’ve chosen your park.
National Forest land doesn’t always require permits for wedding ceremonies, but some places do. If you choose to get married in a national forest, call the local ranger station to learn what their policies are for special events. A huge percentage of US public lands is designated as National Forest and these trails are often much less crowded than within national parks.
BLM stands for Bureau of Land Management, and this is the designation for a significant percentage of US public lands! BLM land is often less regulated and less fragile (a lot of it is used as rotational grazing land for cattle), meaning there are plenty of totally free locations perfect for small wedding ceremonies.
RECEPTION IDEAS & FOOD
Picnics – On the trail, at your rental, or wherever you’re getting married, a wedding picnic is a fun low-key way to make sure no one gets hangry! Even at traditional weddings, couples sometimes find themselves too busy socializing to eat. Plan food into your small wedding timeline and share a meal together or with your guests without the formality. Picnic benches are great if you’re getting married in a park, but you can also pack along blankets to sit on and remove any stress of seating charts – just throw a pillow down by whomever they want!
Local Restaurants – If you’re eloping or planning a small wedding near a city, see if you can reserve a table or room at a local restaurant! One of the benefits of a small wedding is that most places are capable of seating a dozen or so people and you don’t have to cater a meal. Instead, your guests can choose their own dinner and you can enjoy spending more time together without anyone having to step away to prepare food.
ATTIRE & DETAILS
Dress For The Occasion – You already know a small wedding can be whatever you want it to be! It can be as active, adventurous, and exciting as you want. In many cases, this means a traditional black suit and white dress might not fit your needs or keep you comfortable. In fact, you can wear whatever clothing, of any color and material, and even change outfits if you want! Many couples wear comfortable active wear during hiking elopements and then change into formal wear at the ceremony location. Others hike in dresses, suits, jumpsuits, rompers – this is your opportunity to show your style!
Do you think a small wedding ceremony is right for you? Awesome! You won’t regret choosing to plan an intentional, authentic, true-to-you wedding ceremony!
You deserve the wedding day you’ve been dreaming of! We’d love to help turn those dreams into a reality.