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how to leave no trace on your elopement

(and why it matters)

There are seven guiding principles in Leave No Trace, and the keyword there is "guiding". These are not intended to be hard and fast rules that you must abide by 100% of the time, nor are they meant to act as a gatekeeper between people and the outdoors — rather, think of these principles as a way for all of us to be more mindful of our impact on the land while we're out recreating and enjoying it.

In this piece, I’ll go more in depth about each principle, how it pertains to your elopement, and creative ideas that can take the place of more common, environmentally harmful activities. For all of my booking couples, rest assured that you'll receive a personalized, full-fledged guide on how to Leave No Trace on your elopement, as well as how this can all be included in your decision-making and your day!

© 1999 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics — www.lnt.org


plan ahead and prepare

This is pretty much the entire elopement planning process — choosing your location, getting geared up, making sure you have backup plans, packing everything you need, securing tickets/passes — everything that leads up to the big day is helping you to plan and prepare. While this obviously ensures you’ll have the fun, adventurous, stress-free wedding day you’re dreaming of, it also means you’re less likely to run into trouble.

That sounds more ominous than intended, but when you choose to get married in the great outdoors, there are some inherent risks attached to that decision. Mother Nature has a mind of her own and you want to be sure you’re prepared for anything she might throw your way! From sudden afternoon rain showers to high winds, being prepared for any scenario is the key to enjoying your day safely. A key component to aid you in this is the Ten Essentials, a comprehensive list of items to keep you safe and healthy in the outdoors.

Likewise, it’s important to know what to expect on the trail itself. Depending on the time of year, there could be downed trees or snow drifts across portions of the trail, whole sections of forest could be closed due to wildfires in the area, and various other obstacles that could cause you to need to pivot direction (literally and/or figuratively). Keep an eye on trail conditions reported by other recreationists, and contact local ranger stations for up to date safety information.

travel and camp on durable surfaces

For the most part, this can be boiled down to “stay on the trail”. One of the biggest ways you can help keep trails intact is to stay on the trail when it’s muddy. Most folks will go around water and mud puddles, but this seemingly harmless action is one of the more damaging effects on the landscape. Delicate vegetation becomes trampled, trails widen in certain areas, and satellite trails are created, which can have negative effects on water drainage and encourage further damage to occur. I know it can get messy, trudging through water and mud, so plan ahead and bring proper footwear for your hiking elopement!

Equally tempting is to go out in the middle of a field of wildflowers for beautiful photos. However, wildflowers are some of the more delicate plant life and they do not recover nearly as well as more hardy vegetation. With an experienced photographer, you can get creative while staying on the trail for the same effect of being immersed in the flowers without the detrimental harm of actually being in them.

Deserts are also surprisingly fragile which you might not think at first glance, what with all the sand and rock. With water being such a scarce resource, plant life can be especially prone to damage. When hiking and exploring in this particular landscape, do your very best to avoid going through puddles and other scant water sources, as many forms of life depend on this for survival. Another little-known, delicate exterior is cryptobiotic soil. This is a living soil that is extremely fragile if stepped on or disturbed and can take several years to recover, if ever.

But staying on trail is not always the case. Off-trail travel is oftentimes feasible, and sometimes necessary, so it’s best to know how and when to do so. More mountainous areas tend to have a plethora of rocky surfaces and boulders that you can easily walk along, and — depending on the location and time of year — snow, too! Snow and ice, if there is enough of it, provides a protective surface for the vegetation underneath making lots of fun, off-trail options available! Other areas have more hardy grasses that are resistant to scuffing and trampling.

dispose of waste properly

This isn’t anyone’s favorite topic, but it’s still an important one! If you’re planning a hiking elopement, you likely won’t be near any restroom facilities most of the day (save for maybe at the trailhead) and knowing how to “do your business” outdoors is essential. Different areas will have different guidelines for how to take care of this, and it’s imperative for the continued well-being of the landscape and ecosystem that you abide by the specific measures that have been put in place.

Some locations will require you to pack out your waste, which sounds really gross, but there are special products — called WAG bags — made especially for this purpose. I also like to use an odor-proof bag wrapped in duct tape to conceal these further and stash it in an outside pocket on my backpack. In other locations, it’s perfectly okay to dig a cat hole to bury your waste. No matter the circumstance, always have a proper toiletry kit with you in case nature calls! This would include a small trowel for digging, toilet paper, biodegradable hand wash or hand sanitizer, and any bags you might need or want for carrying out any waste (which includes toilet paper and should always be packed out!).

For the cat hole method, you always want to be 200 feet away from any water source to avoid contamination, and it’s best to be as far off the trail as possible. You’ll want to dig a hole at least six inches deep and, once you’re done, cover it back up with the removed soil so that it can biodegrade properly. The same goes for women needing to take care of any feminine business. If you’re only going #1, you don’t need to dig a hole and it’s actually preferred that you don’t. The scent will dissipate faster if it remains on the surface which will keep curious animals at bay.

leave what you find

Leave No Trace certainly means that we shouldn’t leave anything behind, but it also means that we should leave things as they are. One way I like to explain this to couples is, what if everyone who came here took only one flower, one branch, or one rock? Pretty quickly, there’d be nothing left, especially as certain outdoor spaces become more and more popular — and that’s a pretty big impact that would most definitely leave a trace.

It’s important to remember that this is an entire ecosystem that both wildlife and Native peoples rely on. Removing items that are a natural part of this landscape can be detrimental to the balance of the environment, and even more so in particularly sensitive regions such as the high alpine, tundra, and desert. I know it can be super tempting to take little mementos with you on your wedding day, but that’s why you have a photographer to document it! If you see something you’d like to remember, you can always ask them to take photos for you to look back on. We are already on stolen land, so let’s not steal more of it.

minimize campfire impacts

A lot of places, especially National Parks, won’t even allow you to have a campfire, but if you’re eloping somewhere that you can (and it’s also safe to do so), it’s important to know what, and what not, to do. Topographic maps will often have special zones shown where campfires are restricted, and be sure to check the local fire restrictions to see if there are any temporary or permanent bans in place — this can change from day to day, depending on current conditions. Always know where you can safely and legally enjoy a fire if you choose to go that route. Keep to designated fire rings and bring/have access to plenty of water with which you can fully drown the embers; they should be cool to the touch!

Of course, not everyone will choose to have a campfire, and there are some fun ways to add lighting to your evening without starting one, especially if you’re in an area where they are not allowed! String lights in front of a camera lens can mimic the sparks of fire embers, or create a romantically lit area to enjoy a glass of something special at the end of your day. Having your first dance in front of the headlights of your vehicle provides amazing backlight, and can be extra awesome for photos if it's actively snowing or raining, or if you can kick up some dust on a dirt road. Lanterns of any kind are another great lighting alternative for the twilight and dusk hours.

respect wildlife

No matter where you choose to elope, if it is outdoors, you will likely encounter some wildlife. No matter the size of the animal, keep a safe distance and don’t outright bother them. As visitors in their home, we want to be sure that we’re allowing them the space to go about their lives as naturally and normally as possible. If an animal is on the trail, it’s best to stop and wait for them to move or, if feasible as discussed above in regards to off-trail travel, find a safe route that you can go around while keeping your distance.

Food and other scented items should stay properly stored in your backpack while you’re not enjoying them. Try not to leave your packs unattended, or — at the very least — never out of sight and within close enough distance that you can quickly and easily reach them if unexpected visitors pop up. And speaking of scented items, in place of the traditional champagne pop, try out sparkling water instead! It has the same effect in photos and doesn’t leave an aromatic, sugary substance behind to attract wildlife. If you’ll be backpacking for your elopement, make sure you know what food storage is required for your area, too! Most areas now require a bear vault, which can easily be rented from local retailers or parks, but some locations will only require a bear hang.

Especially out here in the west, I always recommend that my couples carry bear spray with them for any kind of hiking. This is not something you can take with you on a plane, even in checked luggage, so you’ll need to purchase these after arriving. Bear spray is not rentable, but it’s the cheapest life insurance you can find and it’s always best to have and not need it than to need it and not have it! You can always recycle these at certain outdoor retailers, or completely make some hiker’s day by giving them a free bear spray so it doesn’t go to waste. You’ll want to carry your spray in a readily accessible location on the front of your body, not  in your backpack — a bear won’t wait for you to get it out to use it. And, most importantly, educate yourself on how and when to use the bear spray, how to avoid encounters, and what to do if your spray fails to deter a bear. A great resource, if you don’t have access to a local bear safety class, is the National Park Service Bear Safety Page.

The importance of respecting wildlife in all of these ways and more can not be overstated. The last thing we want to do is habituate them to humans more than they already are, which can lead to aggressive encounters, injury to humans and/or wildlife, and — if they become too friendly — can sometimes lead to costly relocation efforts or even euthanization. Putting forth our best efforts in limiting our impact on the wildlife ensures both their safety and ours!

be considerate of other visitors

Chances are good that you won’t be the only one around during your elopement, most especially if you’re opting for a day at a popular destination, such as a National Park or highly frequented trail. While your day is obviously a special occasion, remember that others are here to experience and enjoy this location, too! Most folks are considerate in giving you space when they see your wedding attire, but remember to be considerate of them as well. Limit your time in the more popular viewpoints so that they can get their photos, too!

Likewise, try not to be too loud while sharing the location with others. Music and speakers are often prohibited in various parks, so be sure to check the regulations specific to your area first, but it should be kept to a minimal volume wherever they are allowed. A good rule of thumb is to keep it at or below a normal “indoor” talking volume that wouldn’t disturb other visitors or the local wildlife.

Following the Leave No Trace Seven Principles during your elopement might seem like a let down at first glance, but in all actuality it sets the stage for a more safe and enjoyable experience. Likewise, it helps ensure that your chosen location will remain intact 5, 10, even 50 years down the road so that you two can come back time and again for anniversaries or special occasions!

It’s important to remember that virtually no one will be able to follow every principle precisely to the T, every single time they venture into the great outdoors, and that’s not the point of these guidelines. It’s easy to see how these can be misused by those of us who are more privileged (and, let’s be honest, “elitist”) as a means to keep certain groups of people from experiencing Mother Nature and I’ll be the first to say that that is not okay. We don’t need ten people doing everything on this list perfectly; we need millions of people doing this imperfectly to protect these stolen lands for Native and Indigenous peoples who rely on them, the wildlife that depends on the landscape for survival, and so that visitors can enjoy the epic scenery for generations!

backcountry weddings for the WILDLY in love