I'm a storyteller who believes life is made up of the little moments and that the best photographs look for the in-between
Leave No Trace is a series of principles developed by the Center for Outdoor Ethics about how to use outdoor spaces without “loving them to death.”
This means preventing outdoor places from getting super crowded and trashed until they really aren’t the beautiful wilderness places they once were. The ecosystem is damaged and wildlife starts acting too comfy with humans. This is not about gatekeeping. It’s about preserving and educating so EVERYONE can continue to use public lands.
You might be thinking — “Kara — you are an elopement-adventure photographer WHY are you telling me all of this??” It’s because epic elopements and adventure sessions coupled with social media are a big part of the problem. It’s created a huge burden on specific areas that can’t handle the burden due to sheer volume of traffic or people simply not following local rules.
For instance — when lots of people start geotagging a specific location on Instagram, it leads to a huge influx of visitors to that one spot. That’s why a lot of adventure photographers have started using general tags like “The Blue Ridge Mountains” or just “Shenandoah National Park” (or on the west coast you’ll see “Keep Colorado Beautiful” or “Tag Responsibly”). It’s also why I don’t share specific locations with anyone but my clients.
Or take natural flora and fauna. It’s probably not that big of deal if you, just you, step off a path for a photo op. But if you do, and then someone else does, and then 1000 people do, the natural flora and fauna can’t take it. Simply put, where people step, it dies.
Same with trash or waste. It’s not one person leaving a few things behind — it’s the cumulative effect. So we all have to buy in, even when no one is watching, for us to protect the environment.
Am I saying we can’t do epic elopements and adventure sessions? Absolutely NOT. But as more people go outside, it becomes even more vital that all of us care for the outdoor spaces we love so they can continue to be enjoyed.
Still with me?
Ok let’s go through these and how this translates to elopements and adventure sessions.
The Leave No Trace Center outlines seven principles:
It’s important to note that these are principles, not hard and fast rules. But they are intended to guide us into a conservationist way of thinking.
Most of the locations I take couples to have a pretty short hike — under two miles maximum to access. But part of preparation on my part is pre-session scouting. The locations I frequent, I know REALLY well. I know where and when most people go. I know what they look like in the morning, on the weekends, on weekday evenings, etc.
I know which ones you HAVE to have hiking shoes for and which ones you can get away with a flat formal shoe. Or which ones are going to require extra time and bringing lots of drinking water with you.
Knowing locations well allows me to make recommendations that help clients have the best possible experience, safely, AND respect other visitors to the park by not “taking over” an overlook for a wedding ceremony at a prime time.
This is such a big one because it might be tempting to tromp through the woods or meadows for “the shot” but making every effort to stay on established paths and have my clients stay on paths makes a huge difference. Sometimes when I go to places like Big Meadows I can see where other people have lain in the natural grasses. It kind of goes back to that idea that it’s not what one person does, it’s when lots and lots of people do it that it becomes a problem. And Shenandoah National Park is SUCH a popular spot for photos — with good reason — it’s gorgeous! But as it becomes more popular, it becomes more vital that we stay on paths so it stays gorgeous.
So there are really two kinds of waste. There’s trash — like corks from champagne bottles, tags from clothes, and cigarette butts, and then there’s human waste. Both need to be packed out (or human waste needs to be buried).
And yes, you read that right. If you poop in the woods, take it with you! FORTUNATELY if you book me, you get a photographer who is both a mom (hello constant supply of baby wipes) and a dog owner (endless supply of doggy waste bags). *Too much information alert*: when I have to poop before a session (think 4 am coffee hitting right when we get to the trailhead parking lot), I pick a spot in the woods, do my business, pull out some baby wipes, clean up and pack the whole thing out in a doggy bag to dispose of in the nearest trash can. And don’t worry, I have plenty for my clients, too! 😉
As for non-human waste, EVERYTHING you brought in, needs to come out. EVEN if it’s biodegradable (most “biodegradable” things take a LOT longer to decompose than you think!”) Flowers, flower petals, cups, extra food, etc. While yes food and flowers will degrade eventually, can you imagine what a vista would look like if everyone left partially eaten crusts of pizza up there? Not to mention the impact on the wildlife, which we will talk about more below.
A couple of weeks ago, I was shooting an elopement and the wind grabbed the bride’s cathedral veil and flew it over the mountains. It was getting dark and we couldn’t find it. I went up there the next day and I found the thing hanging from a tree! And you better bet I climbed up, grabbed it, and hiked it out with me.
Regarding flowers, rocks, stones and such, feast with your eyes and leave what you see =). Exception: someone else’s trash — do take that out with you! In fact, I’m going to be adding a trash bag to my hiking backpack, so I can take out some of the trash I find every time I’m on the mountain.
Because I don’t go into the backcountry with my clients (there are elopement photographers who do, though), campfires are not usually an issue. When we do them, they’re typically back at the Airbnb or VRBO or campsite. But let’s just say you want those cozy campfire vibes at the end of your elopement or engagement session. The simplest way to do that is just to find and use an existing fire ring or campfire. That can be at your campsite or off a trail. Wood is typically abundant in Shenandoah so just pick fallen sticks and limbs that are already on the ground for your fuel OR if you do the fire back at your homebase, we can arrange to have chopped wood available =).
Last summer — this would have been June of 2019, I was solo hiking with two of my dogs. And a deer started approaching us. It totally freaked me out. Because I have been around deer (from a distance) my entire life and I had NEVER seen one act like this. The dogs were going NUTS and the deer just kept coming closer and closer. Eventually I backed up to a crossways in the path and routed myself around the deer. On my way out, I stopped at the ranger station because I was thinking “rabies.” The ranger thanked me and said it was more likely the deer was looking for food because visitors had started feeding the wildlife and it was a BIG problem they were trying to combat.
This summer, it’s something I’ve had to warn my couples about because deer will get crazy close to us as we’re hiking out — so far, my clients have had no encounters with other wildlife like black bears or foxes (though I’ve run into both on some solo hikes). In general, the guide is to observe wildlife from a distance and never try to “get closer” for a photograph.
To guarantee total privacy for your wedding day, I highly recommend some kind of a venue — even if it’s just an Airbnb or VRBO. When you choose a place like Shenandoah National Park or the George Washington National Forest, we’ll likely be working around other visitors.
Especially this year, Shenandoah has been really busy. I think it’s due to COVID — more people are going outside. Or maybe it’s the social media phenomenon — more people want epic photos (no judgement there — my business is heavily tilted toward epic mountain photos). But in any case there has been more VOLUME of people than in years past.
My clients and I can typically dodge the crowds by doing a sunrise weekday session or picking a less popular spot. Selfishly, it’s nice to have the spot to ourselves, but not-selfishly I also don’t want to detract from the experience of other visitors. They may be crossing Shenandoah off their bucket list, or it’s simply a place they find peace, so I make a big effort to stay out of their way and not ask them to “move” to ensure a particular shot. We just work around them! This way everyone can enjoy the beautiful mountain views, while having an incredible experience in one of Virginia’s greatest treasures.