Big Ideas for Small Weddings

Elopement expert and photographer Sam Starns tells you how to reimagine your wedding and turn it into an unforgettable adventure.


bride and groom on a boat
Photo: Sam Starns

The guest list. No matter what, you’ll have to trim it. How much depends on your comfort level. Do you want 5-10 of your closest friends and family there or just the two of you? Either way, fewer guests open up more possibilities. You can have a ceremony in places where 100 people would never fi t. Want to go crazy and have a ceremony in a hot-air balloon? There are hot-air balloons and wedding packages that can accommodate 12 people. Do you see where we’re going? The possibilities are close to endless.

Focus on the adventure, not the wedding. Couples who want to have an intimate adventure wedding or elopement often make a major misstep when dreaming up their day. They think about the wedding first, and the experience second. I strongly advise against this. Because couples often end up thinking “our ‘best day ever’ sort of adventure involves a horseback ride or a helicopter ride—but with the dress and tux? How would we do that logistically? We’ll just stick to a nice park or something.” Think of your “best day ever” sort of adventure first and foremost. Think of a day that represents the two of you as a couple, no matter what that is. Because why shouldn’t your wedding day be a day that is a reflection of your relationship? And I guarantee that there is a way to incorporate wedding attire and a ceremony in nearly any adventure. Horseback riding adventure? It’s possible. Helicopter? Easy peasy. Hike to a backcountry chalet? 100% doable. Off-road jeep tour? Also yes.

Dig deep into what represents you. We've touched a little on this already, but it bears further delving. This doesn’t just include activities, but we’ll start there. Think about what you love to do, or what you would love to do. What ignites that spark within? Is it something adrenaline packed, like parasailing or a helicopter ride? Does it involve animals, like a horseback ride or a camel trek through Morocco? Or is it more sedate, like a peaceful walk through the redwoods followed by a picnic? Do you like trying new experiences, or would you prefer to have a fantastic day doing things that are already significant to the two of you?

An arguably even more important question is this: How do you want to feel and what do you want to experience on your wedding day? I encourage you to look past the obvious words like carefree, relaxed and happy. Get out your thesaurus and look up more alternatives. And these words don’t have to be typical adjectives like “wild” or “adventurous,” etc. They can describe a visual you see and feel. Some sample words to get you started: Untamed...Free-spirited... Laughter-filled... Organic...Exhilarating... Quaint...Emotive Rocky...Mountainous... Paradise...New...Luxurious This word exercise will also help reveal what backdrop and location best fits your vision. With ever-changing travel restrictions, you may not be planning any far-flung travel abroad, but there are a plethora of wedding-perfect locales to be found right here in the U.S., from rocky mountain peaks, to lush tropical forests, to vast red deserts, urban sprawls and everything in between. So, what are you waiting for? Use this time as a reason to go out there and create an adventure. Then use that as your backdrop to commit yourselves to one another. Downsizing your wedding doesn’t have to mean a quick courthouse wedding. It can mean the first amazing adventure of many, with your partner by your side

Sam Starns is an adventure elopement photographer and owner of Sam Starns Elopements. Her new book, Elope Your Life: A Guide to Living Authentically and Unapologetically, Starting with I Do, is available now.