On her wedding day, Nicole Poulos called out to her photographer, Abbi Hearne.
“Hey! Will you come to the little girl’s room with me?”
Hearne immediately headed her way to help maneuver the white dress as Poulos crouched down behind a tree. Afterwards, she headed back to her fiancé, who stood at the edge of a cliff, looking out over the sweeping landscape.
Nicole and her husband got married at Top of the World in Moab, Utah, a famous lookout point at the end of a 12-mile dirt road only accessible by 4×4. They had no guests, no first dance, no dinner, and no toasts. Just them, two photographers, and an officiate, surrounded by nature.
The Pouloses and their photographers Abbi and Callen Hearne are part of a rising trend in the wedding industry. Or, more accurately, they’re the rebel response to the wedding industry.
The Rise of Adventure Wedding Elopements
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Instead of an expensive, flashy affair, couples are opting for intimate outdoor elopements with an adventure twist. The goal: To buck tradition, remove the stress, and come away with amazing photos.
With the average wedding coming in at $44,000, it’s no surprise that millennial elopements are on the rise. Elopements are a cheaper option for young people like Poulos, who are riddled with student debt. They also allow the couple to avoid the stress of a big family reunion where politics and religion might clash.
National parks have also seen a rise in popularity, peaking at over 330 million visits in 2017. And then you’ve got Instagram, which has made high-quality photos with stunning backdrops an extremely coveted item. It was only a matter of time until the three melded together.
“I think a lot of our couples want good photos because it’s not a big wedding where all their friends and family are going to be able to be there,” said Nate Kantor, one half of Cedar and Pines photography. “So they have a cool way that they’ve documented it, and are able to then share and make people feel like they were there.”
Photographers Now Specialize in Outdoor Elopements
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In 2018, the Hearnes shot 40 adventure elopements and 31 adventure sessions (smaller engagement-style photoshoots) in national and state parks across the country, including Moab, Yosemite, and Alaska. While hiring the Hearnes costs a few thousand dollars more than the average wedding photographer, these couples are choosing to splurge on photography and an experience as opposed to a party and dinner for one hundred guests.
The Hearnes aren’t the only wedding photographers specializing in outdoor adventure elopements. Photographer Charlton Churchill shot a Mount Everest base camp wedding that went viral in 2016; since then he has focused almost exclusively on adventure weddings. He continues to take couples on overnight backpacking trips to get spectacular mountainous wedding shots.
“Adventure means taking a chance, something exciting, an unusual experience, and discovering the unknown. You don’t really know what’s going to happen, but it’s going to be exciting. There might be some challenges,” said Churchill. “The couple will tell their friends of their wedding story, rehashing and retelling it until it becomes part of their history together.”
James Sisson and his wife Ashley were the couple at the center of Churchill’s viral Everest adventure wedding. They put adventure above everything else for their wedding, but ended up with something quite spectacular.
“Being at base camp, you are in this cathedral of mountains,” Sisson said. “Standing there, I thought ‘this is better than any church or any auditorium or decorated backyard or any venue you could do a traditional wedding in’.”
Churchill once had a bride hike 16 miles, eight of them in her wedding dress. Megan Kantor, the other half of Cedar and Pine photography, had a black-tie-clad groom and a bride in a ballgown hike an entire fourteener. Other couples have gone climbing or canyoning after the ceremony.
Abbi Hearne has a way of telling when things are going well. “When we plan a really epic day with fun adventures, and there’ll be a moment during the wedding day when either the bride or groom will say ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize my wedding could be this fun.’ That’s how I know I did a good job,” she said.
Outdoors Photographers Double as Adventure Wedding Planners
For an outdoor adventure wedding, the photographers often act as wedding planners, as many couples come from out of state to a beautiful location they may not have visited before. Photographers choose the venue, plan the timeline, act as nature guides, advise on acquiring permits, help choose hiking-appropriate dresses, and source vendors.
Hearne even recruited her brother Conner Strickland to become an outdoor wedding officiant when she realized couples were struggling to find one they liked who also would travel to their unconventional location.
“During the ceremony, I generally make a statement about the landscape and how old it is and how it didn’t become the way it is overnight,” Strickland said. “This journey the two people are on is going to look very different at the end than it does today.”
The entire day is structured to give the couple time together and time in nature. When Hearne first started shooting traditional weddings in Texas, she always set aside ten minutes for the couple to refocus on themselves and the commitment they are making to one another.
“I used to think I was so edgy for suggesting that, and now our couples do that their whole day,” she said. “The amount of memories they get to build together and the amount of time that they get to spend talking about marriage and commitment is amazing.”
Instead of a traditional wedding where couples rush from greeting distant cousins to cutting the cake to their first dance, outdoor elopement couples spend a quiet day with each other or a few special guests.
“The day was a blur, but we were present for every single part of it, and we got to absorb every minute of it,” Poulos said. “We went away and had this moment to ourselves. 1000% relaxed. The pictures were taken at sunset, so we just got to sit there, look at a beautiful sunset and that was our only job for the night.”
Outdoor Elopement Essentials: Don’t Skip the Permit
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As any outdoorswoman knows, a day in the park may be a dream, but getting the appropriate paperwork can be a hassle. The national park permit system is confusing and arcane for standard overnight permits, and for weddings, it’s just as bad. Most NPS wedding permits are relatively inexpensive—under $200—but don’t always reserve or guarantee a spot. They just allow your wedding to take place legally. While some parks require photographers to have a separate permit, others include it in the wedding permit, adding to the confusion.
Yosemite recently announced a change to their permit process. Where before photography was included in the wedding permit, now an adventure wedding with over 35 guests will have to obtain a separate permit for their photographer. But does everyone follow the rules?
“People do stuff that we don’t know. We have to be realistic about that,” said Scott Gediman, Yosemite Park spokesman. “But it’s by statue of the park that people get a permit for special use activities and it’s to cover both sides.”
And like most things with the federal government, it’s a slow and under-resourced process, especially as the outdoor elopement trend takes off. Last year, bride Sidney Roeder filed for her permit in April prior to her September wedding in Yosemite.
“It was to the point where I had filed so far in advance, and I still had my fingers crossed that the paperwork would come through in time,” she said.
The goal of these permits is to control the foot traffic in sensitive park environments.
“If someone wanted to get married with 150 people at Sentinel Beach we would say that was too much impact for one area and suggest somewhere else,” Gediman said.
The photographers also stress Leave No Trace protocol with their couples to keep outdoor weddings sustainable. Not even a stray petal from a bouquet is left on the ground. In national parks, they don’t allow throwing confetti or spraying champagne, and ensure their couples stay on trail to avoid damage.
“To me, destroying the environment or breaking a rule is never worth a really epic photo,” Hearne said.
While those epic photos might be what inspires many couples to elope outdoors, the real reward is starting their marriage in a wild, huge, and inspiring place.
“If you’re standing at the base of Fitz Roy while saying your vows, it makes you feel so small and feel the weight of the commitment that you’re making,” said Megan Kantor. “I think it makes that commitment feel all the more important and essential to their story.”