Leave No Trace | How To Plan a Minimal Impact Elopement

Friday, October 15th, 2021

Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a non-profit organization whose mission is to help educate others on how to protect the lands we all play in. The organization has created a set of guiding principles for everyone to follow while in the outdoors.

If you are getting married outside, it is probably because you are drawn to nature’s beauty. And the way we keep nature beautiful, so that we can continue to come back to these gorgeous spots time and time again, is to make sure that we enjoy them sustainably and responsibly. Weddings, elopements, and photo sessions can have a big cumulative impact on the environment. Without following Leave No Trace, this is what could happen:

  • Locations that are currently available for weddings and elopements could become off-limits for special events and professional photography—meaning it could become impossible to come back to a location for a vow-renewal or anniversary session in 5 years.
  • The spot that you said your vows could get so badly damaged, destroyed, or trashed that it needs to be closed for restoration, and will not look the same at all when you want to come back in the future.
  • The prevalence and costs of special event permits could spike, causing it to become very difficult to have any kind of events on public lands.

So whether you find the outdoors peaceful, serene, awe-inspiring, or whatever is drawing you to getting married in nature, we are all in this together. And together, I believe it is possible to have the BEST day while also protecting our natural world for future visitors. By reducing our impact as we visit, photograph, and celebrate outdoors, we can protect these places we love! You do not have to limit your celebration to reduce your impact—this guide will help you each step of the way as you plan, prepare, and finally get married somewhere beautiful!

What are the LNT principles?

Simply put, Leave No Trace is a set of ethics and practices we should follow to enjoy and protect the outdoors at the same time. LNT has a set of 7 minimum-impact principles that help guide our decisions when we are outside:

  1. Plan Ahead & Prepare
  2. Travel & Camp on Durable Surfaces
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly
  4. Leave What You Find
  5. Minimize Campfire Basics
  6. Respect Wildlife
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors
Hiking elopement at Hawksbill Mountain Trail in North Carolina

Guidelines To Help Protect Our Public Lands

Plan to Stick to Trails & Durable Surfaces

Always stay on the trail, avoid trampling vegetation, and do not step on wildflowers. If there is no trail or if we are hopping up on rocks for photos, we must always be mindful of the terrain and make sure not to damage the area. A lot of the terrain in these places is incredibly fragile and flowers can take decades to grow back after they have been stepped on!

What are Durable Surfaces & When is it okay to go off-trail?

OK to go off-trail

Rock, sand and gravel: These surfaces are highly durable and can tolerate repeated trampling and scuffing. (Just be aware that  lichens that grow on rocks are vulnerable to repeated scuffing).

Ice and snow: The effect of travel across these surfaces is temporary, making them good choices for travel assuming good safety precautions are followed and the snow layer is of sufficient depth to prevent vegetation damage.

Sometimes OK to go off-trail

Vegetation: The resistance of vegetation to trampling varies. Careful decisions must be made when traveling across vegetation. Dry grasses tend to be resistant to trampling, while wet meadows, moss, tundra plants, and other fragile vegetation quickly show the effects of trampling. If vegetation shows signs of trampling, it creates what are called “social trails,” (or “satellite trails”) which encourage other visitors to go off-trail because there is the appearance of a space used for travel. As a general rule, travelers who must venture off-trail should spread out to avoid creating paths that encourage others to follow. 

Not OK to go off-trail

Living soil: Sometimes referred to as cryptobiotic crust, or crypto, living soil is often found in desert environments, and is extremely vulnerable to foot traffic. One footstep can destroy this fragile soil, causing damage that will take many years to overcome if ever. 

Desert puddles and mud holes: Water is a scarce resource for all living things in the desert. Do not walk through desert puddles, mud holes or disturb surface water in any way. Potholes are also home to tiny desert animals.

Fragile Vegetation: Moss, alpine meadows, tundra plants, wildflowers, and other fragile plants are not resistant to trampling and can take years to grow back if stepped on.

Leave Everything You Find

While it may seem like a fun idea to take mementos of your day from the environment, it is best to leave it as it is. If you see something you want to remember, take a photo of it instead of taking it with you. Your wedding dress will pick up some of the earth of the landscape for you to take home, but let’s leave it at that. Everything else like wildflowers, rocks, bark, and driftwood has to remain there for future travelers to enjoy.

Pack Everything Out

Flower petals, toilet paper, food scraps, champagne cork wrappers—all of it. Even items that may be perceived as “natural” or “biodegradable” are likely not native to the environment and take a lot of time to degrade, and in the meantime, they have the same effect as leaving trash behind.

Adventure elopement at El Matador State Beach in California

Bouquets & Flowers

If you are going to be hiking with a bouquet on your pack, make sure it is sturdy and will not be dropping petals along the way. Also depending on the environment you are in, you may want to check the local rules and regulations to see if it is allowed to bring non-native species of flowers. It is always best to avoid bringing invasive species of plants into environments in case pollen or seeds do drop. Also be aware of the impacts of floral installations (where they might leave holes in the ground), and always make sure to fully disassemble these and pack them out.

Popping Champagne

Find that champagne cork after you pop it, and make sure to pack out the wire cage and wrapper. Also be aware that alcohol is illegal in some National Parks, and the sugar in champagne can be harmful to certain fragile environments. If you really want to pop some bubbly for a fun “spray photo” sparkling water is a great alternative and looks the same in an image. Plus, you can save the actual champagne for drinking!

Champagne spray alternative safer for the environment

Confetti, Seeds, and Rice

Most National Parks do not allow throwing anything on the ground, and it is generally not a good idea (even biodegradable confetti). Some sustainable alternatives are to sustainably collect local native leaves or use ribbon sticks, glow sticks, or snowballs instead.

Human Waste

Going #2 on the trail sometimes means you have to hike back out with a bag of you-know-what. WAG bags are a great option in places where facilities are not available. In certain environments (desert and high-alpine) you always need to pack your own waste out. In other places, you can dig a cat hole at least 6 inches deep. Make plans for you, your guests, or your pets and be prepared to pack it out.

Be Careful With Fire

Always check for fire bans in your area before having a campfire or using candles, fireworks, smoke bombs, or sparklers. A quick search online will tell you if there are any bans. Only use designated fire pits, only start the fire if there are no high winds and if there is adequate water to drown it nearby. Keep your fire small and make sure it is fully put out when you are done (the embers should be cool to the touch).

Respect The Wildlife, We Are In Their Home

If you are lucky enough to see some wildlife on your elopement day, make sure to get some photos from a safe distance. For the safety of the animal (and you!), it is important to never try to approach, follow or or feed them—no matter the animal or size. A good rule of “thumb” is to stick your actual thumb out in front of you and close one eye, if you cannot cover up the whole animal with your thumb then you are probably too close.

black bear in the great smoky mountain national park

Bear Spray

Speaking of bears… bear spray is required in some areas, and not allowed in others. This is something else you will want to research and know ahead of time to know what is appropriate for your chosen area.

Food and Wildlife

Food and food smells can have a large impact on wildlife. Some animals are notoriously sneaky and like to steal food, so make sure your food (and any scented items) is secured if you walk away from your pack, so you do not unintentionally feed wildlife. Feeding animals can cause them to become aggressive and need to be relocated or terminated. For backpacking elopements, especially in bear country, always make sure you have the proper food storage. Check out this combo pack with a bear resistant hanging container and odor proof bags. Some areas require bear canisters, and you should never bring food into your tent! Bear can rentals can easily be found at National Parks or nearby camp and outdoor stores. Always make sure to pack out all your food when you leave.


Wildlife can be strongly affected by the presence of our furry companions, so be sure to only bring dogs in places they are allowed, and then keep them on-leash and under control. Pets are not permitted on trails in almost all National Parks, even if they are on a leash, and pets are completely banned from certain National Parks. If it is important to bring your dog, most National Forests allow dogs on a 6-foot leash.

Dog camping during adventure elopement at GSMNP

Be Considerate Of Others, Especially If They Are Eloping Too

Eloping is becoming more and more popular every year. While I always try to find epic spots that also offer privacy, some areas are exceptionally popular and we will have to share the space with other hikers. Sometimes we even run into other couples on their own elopement! Fortunately, everyone is usually very kind and considerate about sharing the space so we can all get our photos and have a good time. No matter who we run into out there, we will make sure to share the views and be respectful of their experience too.

To give you a good idea of what this will look like in practice, here is a short play-by-play recap of each Leave No Trace Principle and how it applies in real-time on your elopement day!

  • Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces. Stick to trails and durable surfaces like rock, sand, gravel, ice, snow, and study vegetation like dry grasses for your ceremony, portraits, and activities. 
  • Dispose of Waste Properly. Before you leave your ceremony or celebration area, be sure to do a good sweep and pick up any little trash items that might have fallen. Use a trash bag to collect any waste that is generated and know the environmental regulations on going to the bathroom in the wilderness. 
  • Leave What You Find. Everything you see makes up this beautiful landscape—leave all of those treasures where they are!  If there is something you see that you love, let your photographer know and they can take a beautiful detailed photo of it instead. “Take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.”
  • Minimize Campfire Impacts. Follow fire regulations and if you do have a campfire, make sure to use an established fire pit, and put it out entirely before leaving. Avoid using sparklers, smoke bombs, or candles in any place that you would not consider safe for a campfire. 
  • Respect Wildlife. Keep a safe distance from all wildlife you encounter and do not leave your food unattended.
  • Be Courteous of Other Visitors. Smile and be friendly to other hikers and even couples/photographers you meet on the trail. Share the views and best photo spots and enjoy being in the beautiful great outdoors together.

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