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 & 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. Follow our outdoor wedding checklist to ensure you don't miss a thing while planning your oasis. 

Set Up Camp

Outdoor wedding tent

When it comes to your outdoor wedding setup, chances are, you will want some sort of overhead cover. The good thing about tents is that they 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
Outdoor wedding tent

Since tents are virtually a blank canvas, you'll more than likely need to bring in some extra touches to finish  your outdoor wedding setup 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
Outdoor wedding cozy 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
Outdoor wedding with twinkle lights

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.

Take Advantage of the Natural Scenery

Probably one of the major reasons why you're choosing an outdoor wedding set up is because you're inspired by the natural elements of your venue. Maybe you're setting up in a garden or an outdoor area with lots of green space. Incorporate the natural scenery into your decor. Add comfortable seating in the garden and play with the greenery as a backdrop for photos. Hang decorations from tree branches or include clippings from the wildflowers on your table settings. 

Avoid Uninvited Guests

The last thing you want is for your guests to accidentally sit on an anthill or to spend the evening swatting away mosquitos. Depending on the venue, see if you can get an exterminator in beforehand to spray or clear the area. If you're hosting an outdoor evening ceremony, definitely add citronella candles or tiki lanterns to your outdoor wedding checklist to help ward off unwelcome pests. 

Be Prepared

While you can't change the weather, you can still try to best prepare for it. When it comes to your outdoor wedding setup, think about how the weather could impact you and your guests. As mentioned above, tents can help shield your guests from the rain, but you may also want to provide umbrellas to keep your guests dry when moving from location to location. If you think it may get chilly, set up heat fans and have cozy blankets on hand for your guests. But if it's the heat you're worried about, rent some industrial fans and give out paper hand fans as party favors to keep your guests cool.

Get Creative and On-Theme With the Menu
Outdoor wedding table chandeliers

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
Outdoor wedding tent

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
Fancy soap

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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