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. These parks are amazing anytime of year, but in winter they transform into a winter wonderland that is perfectly suited for landscape and nature photography. 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 I can't wait to go back again in the winter. In this article, I will teach you how to photograph in the Canadian Rockies during the winter and will share several useful tips which you can use to plan your own adventure. This is not a photo location guide and please don't ask for exact directions to these locations or GPS coordinates! The photos featured here represent my very best work from winter in the Canadian Rockies and each is available for purchase as a limited-edition fine art print.
Canadian Rockies Winter Travel and Photography Tips:
Traveling to Canada During the COVID-19 Pandemic - During much of the pandemic, international travel into Canada was nearly impossible. Even if you could get in, the quarantine rules made visiting impractical for most people. Fortunately, as the number of cases has decreased and more people are getting vaccinated, the Government of Canada has been slowly easing the restrictions for international arrivals. The winter of 2021-22 is finally looking like a good time to visit Canada for a photography trip...if you are vaccinated!
Summary of Canada Travel Restrictions as of November 2021:
- Fully vaccinated foreign nationals may be allowed enter Canada for discretionary and leisure travel.
- Travelers will still be required to show a negative pre-entry molecular test (PCR)
- Will be required to use the ArriveCAN app
- Will be required to take an arrival test if selected
- Unvaccinated foreign nationals, will not be allowed to enter for leisure travel, even with a negative COVID test.
- Find out if Canada will allow you to enter
Going Through Canadian Customs with Camera Gear - In the last few years, Canadian Customs has become very interested in photographers who are entering the country. When passing through customs, the agents will ask about your plans during your visit and if you say photography, you will be asked many more questions about what kind of work you will be doing. I don't know of anyone being denied access into the country, but I would certainly expect to answer a lot of questions! It took me about 20-30 minutes to get through customs, since I had to open all my bags and show the agents my camera gear.
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, which makes the wind chill temperatures dangerously low. It's definitely cold out there, but you can remain quite comfortable with proper clothing and gear.
Clothing and Gear - The cold weather in the mountains is no joke, especially if the wind is blowing. For your own safety, good winter gear is a must! Even though the temperature never got above freezing during my trip, the gear listed below kept me comfortable.
My layering system included:
- Baselayers - Smartwool liner socks, Smartwool socks, wool blend baselayers top/bottom, fleece jacket and fleece pants
- Outerwear - Down jacket, Goretex shell pants, Goretex shell jacket
- Headwear - Neck warmer, balaclava, beanie, sunglasses
- Gloves - Liner gloves, lightly insulated windproof Goretex gloves, Goretex insulated mittens, hand warmers
- Footwear - Goretex trail running shoes, insulated winter boots.
Other gear used included:
- MSR snowshoes, hiking/trekking poles, Kahtoola Microspikes, NRS Boundary socks.
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. There are guard stations outside of Lake Louise and Jasper and only appropriately equipped vehicles are allowed to pass. The roads in the parks are almost always covered in snow and packed ice, but with 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 limited cell service. If you have never driven on snow/ice, I don't think this is the best place to learn! It's also important to be aware that Alberta Transportation can suddenly close the Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper (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 Airport 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 fuel 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. Most of the gas stations are not open 24/7 during the winter and if the station is closed, Americans are not able to pump any gas! Well played Canada, well played! One morning when we were heading out to shoot the sunrise, we stopped at a gas station to get fuel, but it was closed. We had to decide if we wanted to wait for the gas station to open in a couple of hours or hit the road with the gas we had in the tank. After doing some quick estimates and calculations, we decided we had just enough gas to go out shooting for the day. Our estimation was a bit off and we drove the last 35 kilometers back to Lake Louise with the gas light illuminated! We made it, but we were dangerously close to needing to walk or hitchhike back to town!
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 - A mirrorless or digital SLR body with good weather sealing is highly recommended. 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 weather camera failure. For what it's worth, the Nikon D850 and Nikon Z7 did not have any issues in the cold.
Camera Lenses - There are many different subjects to photograph in the Canadian Rockies during the winter, so carrying a proper assortment of lenses is very important. These subjects range from ultra wide angle grand landscapes to close up ice abstracts to super telephoto mountain details. I recommend bringing lenses that cover ~14mm to 500mm on a full frame camera. I brought my 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm and 200-500mm lenses and I used every one during the trip.
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. In my experience, OEM batteries tend to keep their charge longer than off brand batteries, especially in extremely cold weather.
Tripods - When using a tripod, if there is water/snow on the legs, don't return the legs to the closed position. If the legs are closed with water on them, they will freeze shut and it will be impossible to move the legs again until they are thawed out in the car/hotel. It can be incredibly frustrating to be unable to adjust the height of your tripod and this always seems to happen when the light is going off! There were two times during the trip when my tripod legs froze up and it was incredibly frustrating! If this happens to you, ditch the tripod and shoot handheld using a camera with in body image stabilization (IBIS). Yes, the IBIS on mirrorless cameras works incredibly well for handheld photography!
Best time of day for photography - Due to the low angle of the sun during the winter, it's possible to shoot during any time of day. Sunrises and sunsets can be stunning, but don't miss the midday light, especially if there are clouds and atmosphere. For the truly adventurous, night photography (stars and aurora) can be quite good if the skies are clear, but staying warm can be a challenge!
The Canadian Rockies are a very special place, especially during the winter season. The dramatic mountains and extreme winter weather conditions create a unique environment with endless landscape photography opportunities. It's easy to spend a week or two exploring the frozen landscapes in this beautiful area. Hopefully some of you are able to travel to the Canadian Rockies during the winter of 2021-22. If you make it there, please let me know how it went!
I hope you find these tips helpful for planning a photography trip to the Canadian Rockies in the winter. If you have any questions or thoughts about the article, you can leave a comment below or contact me directly through this website. I will respond to all questions. Thanks for reading!
Can't make it to the Canadian Rockies during the winter? Consider purchasing a Fine Art Print from Scott Smorra Photography's Canadian Rockies Winter Gallery. These TruLife Acrylic and Fine Art Paper prints look amazing on the wall and will bring a touch of the Canadian Rockies into your home or office! The colorful and detailed prints will make you feel like you are out snowshoeing in this frozen mountain paradise.
Updated: November 5, 2021