Everything You Need to Plan an Outdoor Wedding

Including the things you probably haven't thought of (read: power generators and rental restrooms) to pull off a gorgeous, glamorous outdoor affair.
by Anja Winikka and Sophie Ross

There's something indescribable about an outdoor wedding: the unparalleled beauty of a rocky ocean shore, a romantic botanical garden, the warm familiarity of your own backyard. But as gorgeous as these sites are, there's also a significant amount of legwork and orchestration that goes into planning an alfresco celebration. From the lighting to the menu, here's how to pull off a flawless tented reception.

Set Up Camp

Tents can be pitched just about anywhere. Stake one in your favorite park or even outside a gorgeous mansion or estate, if that's the venue you choose. Whether you're going for formal or casual, tents come in all shapes, sizes and materials. Work with your local rental company to figure out what style fits your vision (and the venue's spatial constraints). And make sure you choose a tent that works on your surface—pavement, grass, sand and so on.

And don't forget to weatherproof it. For a summer wedding, bring in fans and portable air conditioning units, and keep guests warm in chillier months with tall patio or propane heathers. You may also want to add floor surfaces (to correct uneven ground) and wall panels (to protect against wind or rain). 

But here's a pro tip: Even the sturdiest tents can't withstand heavy rains and fierce winds. Therefore, you definitely need to have an indoor backup plan at a nearby reception space or restaurant. And if your area is known for having inconsistent weather, make sure your wedding insurance package covers rain, which could help you recover at least a portion of the fees if your event has to be postponed. 

Think About the Extras—and Rent Them

Since tents are virtually a blank canvas, you'll more than likely need to bring in some extra touches to finish the look. Luckily, there are tons of rental design options available—textured curtains and tiebacks, funky chandeliers and colorful cushions. Decide what elements are most important to you and then figure out how to fit the items at the top of your list and into your budget.

Remember to find out the return policy for each rental vendor you work with. For example, companies sometimes require that votives and glassware be cleaned and boxed before being taken back (fines can be added if directions aren't followed). Make an organized plan with your wedding coordinator (a huge perk of having a planner!) or maid of honor to decide who will be responsible for taking care of this—then be sure to work it into the day's schedule. 

Also, reserve the site for your wedding day and the morning after. (Find out if the venue offers a package deal or how much each additional hour will cost.) With tent and rental setup, not to mention flowers and décor, your team or pros will need extra time to set up—and tear down—the site.

(And one last thing: To keep bugs at bay during your wedding day, think about having your site sprayed by an exterminator two days beforehand and placing cintronella candles throughout the space.) 

Transform the Venue Into a Charming Space

Whether you've chosen a rustic spot in the woods, a small backyard or a grand, grassy lawn, make it more inviting and comfortable with lounge furniture and lots of pillows. If you don't have room to bring in couches and plush chairs, arrange your dining area with smaller 4-person reception tables instead of larger 8 or 10 person tables to create a more intimate look and feel. 

And of course, have fun with the decorating. Drape fabric from the tent's ceiling to soften the space or to create sectioned off "rooms." Hang pomanders from the frame's cross sections, and add other details to welcome guests and enhance your wedding's unique design. After all, the more you bring into your tent, the warmer and cozier it will feel. Colored linens, vibrant up-lighting and quirky knickknacks set a one-of-a-kind vibe. 

Also, don't assume that your guests will find their way around. If your reception site will also be home to the ceremony and cocktail hour, make sure there's a natural flow between the spaces. You may need to add signs directing guests from the ceremony to the reception and pointing out the restrooms. 

Set the Mood With On-Point Lighting

To set the mood (and help guests see each other), add things like paper lanterns, pinspot lighting, twinkling lights or stately chandeliers. Light up surrounded walkways for easy access to the bathrooms. Think: luminaries and small up-lights along the paths, and mason jars or tea lights hanging from nearby tree branches. 

Something you may not have thought of? You'll want to have an electrician check out the space before lighting up your tent. Not only will they be able to make sure you pass all the proper inspection laws, but they should also be able to make recommendations as to whether you'll need to rent an extra generator and how to safely secure your lighting fixtures. No one wants a blackout during their wedding reception. You may even want to keep a lighting pro (who has wedding experience) on hand to ensure everything stays in place—and lit up—all evening.

Get Creative and On-Theme With the Menu

Having an outdoor wedding gives you flexibility to get creative with your menu. Under a tent you might throw a New England clambake, a spicy Southern barbecue or even a Hawaiian pig roast. But you probably wouldn't even consider those options for a ballroom affair. Regardless of what food appears on your menu, plan to have plenty of cold water and refreshing nonalcoholic drinks on hand—especially if the weather is hot and humid. Lemonade and iced tea are good staples. 

It's important to schedule a site visit prior to your wedding day for your caterer to make sure they're well-equipped to handle the space. Also, keep in mind that in most cases, your caterer will need a separate prepping tent. And don't forget about the need for electricity and running water. You'll probably have to work with your caterer to draw up a detailed floorplan.  

Lastly, make sure your catering company has experience running tented events. They'll not only provide all the right supplies (saving you the hassle of having to rent them) and set up and clean up, but they'll also know to have enough waitstaff on hand to ensure that all of your guests are taken care of.

Let the Setting Guide Your Music Choices

If you're on the beach, you can't go wrong with steel drums. For a backyard reception, you might go for a folk or bluegrass group. Of course, you need to make sure your band or DJ has enough power to supply their equipment. This may mean bringing in an extra generator so you don't lose the lights in the middle of the party. They should be able to tell you what they'll need to set up at your site. Also, figure out where the band or DJ and dance floor will be. (Hint: Make sure it's not in the path from the kitchen to the tables.) 

And be prepared: Since most city ordinances don't allow outdoor music late into the evening, do your research and then commit to a time when the band or DJ will unplug.

Provide All the Necessities

Even if there are real, brick-and-mortar restrooms nearby, you might still want to consider renting them—and no, you don't need to consider porta-potties (unless, of course, you prefer them). These days, you can find luxury portable restrooms with amenities like in-room music, granite countertops and air conditioning or heaters depending on the season. You'll want to include a few subtle extras like luxe soaps, fresh flowers and monogrammed towels. And here's a pro tip: The general rule of thumb is to have one bathroom or stall for every 35 guests. This way, guests will spend less time standing in line and more time partying on the dance floor.

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