How to Leave No Trace When Eloping in a National Park

August 23, 2022
How to Leave No Trace When Eloping in a National Park

Seeing an influx of people enjoy the outdoors is wonderful, but it makes it all the more important to do our part in leaving our national parks better than we found them. In the past few years, adventure elopements and national park weddings have grown exponentially in popularity. As parks have worked to accommodate the influx, photographers and couples have started experiencing the repercussions from those who do not abide by Leave No Trace. 

In 2022, Grand Teton National Park released new guidelines for weddings and commercial photography in the park due to issues arising from events and weddings. Jocilyn Bennet, an elopement and wedding photographer who books dozens of weddings in national parks yearly, was one of many photographers devastated by the new rules and regulations. This blow was a glimpse into the future of national park weddings if the impact and disregard for leave no trace principles continue. 

Respecting our national parks and protected lands have never been more important. As a wedding photographer in national parks who witnesses firsthand the impacts when Leave No Trace isn’t followed, Jocilyn shares her pro tips that couples, wedding guests, and other photographers can implement to help save and secure these locations for generations to come. 

Leave No Trace Tips from Jocilyn Bennet Photography

The biggest misconception is that Leave No Trace is a set of black and white rules restricting you from really experiencing and enjoying yourself in nature. In reality, Leave No Trace is a set of guidelines, not rules. This means you have to educate yourself and use your best judgment when in nature. And you still get to enjoy yourself! You can look, touch, taste, and feel it all when in nature! Leave No Trace is a set of principles meant to educate visitors on how to best experience nature and preserve it for years to come.

For Couples & Guests 

  • Look up region rules and regulations beforehand. Every national park, national forest, and even BLM land has different rules and regulations, including pets, camping, hiking, and more. 
  • Respect wildlife. Keep a safe distance and never feed any animal, even birds and squirrels. Interacting too closely with animals can put both themselves and the animal at risk.
  • Communicate with others about expectations. There are plenty of ways to politely ask guests to ensure they are doing their part! Here are a few fun ideas: 
    • Send out a friendly note with your invitation that discusses the fragile environment and what guests can do to help minimize impact. 
    • Keep it intimate and simple; parks don’t love ceremony decor and setups. They also like seeing smaller group sizes. Fewer people and less change to the environment = less impact.
    • Pop sparkling water instead of champagne. Couples can shake up and pop a bottle of unflavored sparkling water for the epic photo and save the champagne for drinking. There are more advantages beyond LNT to doing it this way. It saves wedding attire from being soiled and also doesn’t waste nice champagne!
  • Dispose of waster properly. When leaving a ceremony site, it’s a great idea to ensure someone is in charge of looking over the grounds before leaving and placing any trash in a plastic bag to hike out. As much as we all try, things happen. A tissue can fall from a pocket, or maybe a wrapper escapes a purse. Instead of a flower girl, every national park wedding should have a Leave No Trace guest!
  • Leave the environment as-is. Avoid participating in activities that leave the area in a different state than you found, such as stacking rocks, tipping over trees, or creating a fire ring. People often misunderstand Leave No Trace and believe it is ok because they are moving natural items and not bringing in outside trash. Education is key! 
  • Plan bathroom breaks. If a ceremony is located away from bathrooms or if you plan to hike for pictures, ensure you go before you leave. Used & discarded toilet paper is one of the biggest issues when it comes to groups and events in national parks. Packing a couple of wag bags for the event is not a bad idea. Hikers and climbers commonly use these bags to go to the bathroom in the wilderness without disturbing the natural environment. If someone has an emergency, it’s a great way to avoid leaving an impact!
  • Avoid tagging/sharing specific locations on social media. Technology is now one of the driving factors that affect our national parks. One viral social media tag can completely change and destroy a natural area. In recent years, Jackson Hole has changed its tourism tag to #staywildjh and its location tag to ‘Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild’ in order to help offset some of these impacts. 

For Other Wedding & Elopement Photographers 

  1. Geotagging. Sharing beautiful images online with specific location information causes a huge increase in traffic to that area in a short amount of time. For example, Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park typically received 3 million visitors between the months of June-Oct. In 2021, there were 3 million visitors in the month of June alone. Geotagging is a practice that photographers like to use to drive traffic to their websites and social media accounts to benefit their businesses. Unfortunately, one beautiful image can do so much harm. As a practicing Leave No Trace photographer, I no longer geotag my images nor give descriptive location info in captions because the impact is too great. 
  2. Educate. I do my best to inform my clients about the importance of Leave No Trace and have them initial a specific clause in my contract stating that they will follow Leave No Trace principles throughout their event. Then I follow through by helping them plan their day with these principles in mind. This is important because our clients view us as experts and follow our examples. AND if we don’t educate them, they may make plans based on what they see happening online. As an elopement professional, it’s hard to stop things from happening once they’ve been set in motion. For these reasons, I discuss Leave No Trace in the beginning and include it in my contract.
  3. I now do my best to talk about Leave No Trace on my social media and blogs to bring context to my photos. Sometimes I shoot a photo with a creative angle that will make my couples look like they are off-trail in a field of wildflowers, but in reality, the photo was taken at an angle to hide the trail. This makes for a beautiful image, but when posted online without that context can cause other photographers and park visitors to go off trail. This type of thing can be applied to any Leave No Trace principle.
  4. Take the Leave No Trace course for photographers by Maddie Mae. I would love to see parks require a course certificate and have a streamlined permit and fee process. That way, more photographers will be educated before operating in these places.

How to talk with clients about Leave No Trace principles: 

  1. Talk about Leave No Trace everywhere in advertising (social media, website, blog, etc.)
  2. Mention Leave No Trace principles right from the beginning when interacting with clients & include a Leave No Trace clause in contracts.
  3. Discuss with clients during the planning stages to ensure everyone is aware of what is allowed or not and make a plans to ensure these principles will be followed on the day of the event.
  4. Send a Leave No Trace reminder email before the event and ask clients to pass it on to all their guests so everyone is aware.
  5. Be aware of what is happening throughout the event day to ensure your group is compliant.

Couples who get married in national parks often enjoy a shared love of nature. They also share a responsibility to ensure future generations have the same opportunities. Now is one of the most critical times that will decide our future within national parks. As this is being published, Grand Teton & other national parks are working on new rules and regulations for 2023. 

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