In February 2020, I had the opportunity to spend a week creating landscape photographs in Banff and Jasper National Parks with my good friend and talented photographer, Jordan Ek. It was amazing to be surrounded by so much snow and ice and to see the landscape completely frozen. The temperatures ranged from 0 to -30 degrees Celsius, but we were both able to stay warm despite being out in the elements all day. During our trip, we had no set itinerary and simply spent our days chasing the light and searching for subjects and scenes that inspired us. It was an incredible place explore through photography and we can't wait to go back again in the winter. In this blog post, I share a few of the things I learned during the trip that you may find helpful when planning your own adventure. This is not a photo location guide and please don't ask for exact directions to these locations or GPS coordinates!
Travel and photography tips:
Weather - It's cold! Really, really cold! During the winter months, the temperatures generally range from a high of ~32F/0C to a low of -40F/-40C. Some areas can be quite windy and the wind chill temps go even lower. It's definitely cold out there, but you can remain quite comfortable for the entire day if you have proper clothing and gear.
Clothing and Gear- The cold weather in the moutains is no joke, especially if the wind is blowing. For your own saftey, good winter gear is a must! My layering system included, liner socks, wool socks, wool blend baselayers top/bottom, fleece jacket and fleece pants, down jacket, shell pants, shell jacket, neck warmer, balaclava, beanie, liner gloves, lightly insulated windproof gloves, insulated mittens, hand warmers, insulated winter boots. Other gear I used included; snowshoes, hiking poles and microspikes.
Driving - I recommend getting an SUV with all wheel drive (AWD) and snow tires. Tires with the M+S or snowflake symbol are required to drive on the Icefields Parkway from November 1 to April 1. The roads in the parks are almost always covered in snow and packed ice, but with the snow tires and good winter driving skills you should be able to keep yourself out of the ditch. Be careful when driving because if you get into trouble it can be a LONG time before anyone passes by and there is almost no cell service between Lake Louise and Jasper. It's also good to be aware that Alberta Transporation can suddenly close the road (sometimes for days) due to avalanche danger. Click here for more information about driving the Icefields Parkway in winter. Several rental companies offer cars/SUVs with snow tires at the Calgary Airport, but it is very difficult to add this option when you are booking online. The winter tires add $20-25 CAD per day to the cost of the rental, but it's worth it in my opinion. I ended up booking through Dollar/Thrifty website and then calling the Calgary location to arrange the winter tires. The company would not guarantee a vehicle would be available with winter tires, but I had no problem getting one when we arrived.
Gas/Fuel - The only places to get gas in the winter are in Banff/Canmore, Lake Louise and Jasper. Saskatchewan Crossing is closed for the winter so don't rely on it for gas. If you are from the United States you usually have to go inside the gas station to pay with a credit card. If the gas station is not open, you will not be able pump any gas. We learned this the hard way early one morning before the gas station opened. After doing some quick estimates and calculatations we decided that we had just enough gas to go out shooting for the day. Our estimation was a bit off and we had to drive 25 kilometers with the gas light illuminated on our way back to Lake Louise! We made it back, but it was close!
Hotels and Lodging - The main places to stay are the towns of Banff/Canmore, Lake Louise and Jasper. As long as you are not traveling around Christmas or New Year's, advance reservations are generally not needed in any of these towns during the winter months. The nightly room rates are very reasonable in the winter compared to the peak summer season. There are also a few hostels along the Icefields Parkway that are open during the winter if you are looking for a lower cost option.
Cameras - If possible, try to make sure you have a back up camera. We had a Nikon D810 that simply stopped working on one of the -30C degree mornings. The camera got too cold and froze up. After warming it back up in the hotel everything functioned appropriately but in the cold it was useless. If you have a back up camera body, you are less likely to miss out on a special moment due to cold related camera failure. For what it's worth, the Nikon D850 and Nikon Z7 did not have any issues in the cold.
Batteries - It's important to make sure you have lots of extra camera batteries and charge them up every night. I stored all of my batteries in the chest pocket of my fleece jacket to keep them warm.
Tripods - When using a tripod, be aware that if you get water/snow on the legs and then you close up the tripod, it's going to freeze shut and you will be unable to move it until you can thaw it out in the car/hotel. It can be incredibly frustrating not to be able to adjust the height of your tripod and this always seems to happen when the light is going off!
Best time of day for photography - Due to the low angle of the sun during the winter, you can actually shoot during any time of day. Sunrises and sunsets can be stunning, but don't miss the midday light, especially if there are lots of clouds and atmosphere. For the truly adventurous, night photography can quite good if the skies are clear, but staying warm can be a challenge!
I hope you find these tips helpful for planning a photography trip to the Canadian Rockies in the winter. If you have any questions, please let me know in the comments below.