We Survived 8 Days in the Dirt Off-Roading at the 2023 Rebelle Rally

But would our friendship survive? Rebelle Rally, a grueling off-roading competition challenged by weather, political winds and no GPS is the ultimate test.

Kristin Shaw And Jill Ciminillo
Kristin Shaw and Jill Ciminillo. Photo: Kristin Shaw

Team Spirit Instead of Cattiness: A True Gift

The Rebelle Rally is the longest map-and-compass off-roading rally in the United States, this year covering some 1,300 miles or more over the course of eight days. Days are grueling, and nights are spent on the ground in tents that the competitors (all women) build themselves. But here’s the real kick: no GPS or cell phones are allowed. In fact, all devices must be sealed and vehicle navigation technology disabled or completely covered with special tape, inaccessible for the duration of the rally.

For the second consecutive year, I competed in the Rebelle Rally with my friend and teammate Jill Ciminillo, and we achieved our two major goals: don’t break the truck and put our friendship first. (Jill likes to joke that “don’t die” is another objective.)

At the completion of our rally, our Hyundai Santa Cruz sustained only minor injuries, and so did we; Jill stumbled over a tent wire in the dark, and I burned my fingers on a match while lighting a Coleman stove on a windy night. Neither of those was the result of the rally itself. In the end, not only are we still friends, but we’ve developed a deeper friendship that transcends the surface. We entered this adventure together, and it’s a life-changing one.

Related: You Can Do Hard Things at the Rebelle Rally

The Fantastic Hyundai Santa Cruz Was Our Chariot For The Rebelle Rally. Photo: Kristin Shaw

The fantastic Hyundai Santa Cruz was our chariot for the Rebelle Rally. Photo: Kristin Shaw

What Does It Take to Compete in the Rebelle Rally? Money Helps, But That’s Not All

This was the eighth year of the rally, and founder Emily Miller increased the allotment of teams from 55 in 2022 to 65 in 2023. Several were sponsored by manufacturers Jeep, Rivian, Ford, Kia, BMW, and Hyundai, and others were funded by the women themselves (they’re called “privateers”), often through a collection of smaller sponsorships and GoFundMe campaigns.

Each team consists of two women and one car (the “third teammate”), along with all the analog navigational tools they’ll need. That includes a compass, pencils or erasable pens, highlighters, map rulers, plotters, and calculators.

Entry fees, fuel, the shared cost of satellite tracking devices, park and road permits, base camp operations, a mess tent, portable bathrooms and more can cost upwards of $17,000 per team. That doesn’t even count your tools and gear, like headlamps, recovery boards, spare tires, clothing, boots and other things you’ll need for the rally. Cars are impounded at the end of the day, so sleeping in the vehicles isn’t an option; you’ll need a tent and sleeping bag too.

Jill and I were sponsored by Hyundai, piloting a Santa Cruz in both 2022 and 2023 to compete in the X-Cross (crossover) class. Did we win? No, but we didn’t expect to in our second year. We are proud, though, to have moved up quite a bit in the rankings from last year in the X-Cross class, which has become an uber-competitive category filled with professional drivers and experienced teams. An incredible eight-time repeat Rebelle competitor won in a Ford Bronco Sport, followed by two veteran navigators teaming up in a BMW X2 prototype in second, and a Kia Telluride kitted out with off-road accessories and driven by a professional stunt driver taking third place.

Related: Meet Emily Miller, The Force of Nature Behind the Rebelle Rally 

This Year'S Rebelle Rally Almost Didn'T Happen - And Then It Did. Photo: Ernesto Araiza

This year’s Rebelle Rally almost didn’t happen – and then it did. Photo: Ernesto Araiza

This Rebelle Rally Almost Didn’t Happen 

Massive rainfall in August caused rivers to run in the desert, carving fissures and impassable ruts on the trails. Miller, along with course director Jimmy Lewis and Chrissy Beavis (all three of them past off-road champions), changed the 2023 course several times to adapt to Mother Nature’s rages.

Another issue was fuel. Both gas-powered and all-electric vehicles participated in the rally, so they needed a traveling fuel tanker with a steady supply of petrol and a hydrogen-powered mobile charging station. Neither was an easy task, but Miller’s partnership with Brian Busby for fossil fuels and with Renewable Innovations for electric charging came through.

Renewable Innovations’ truck not only powers up the battery-electric vehicles using hydrogen, but it also carries giant “flowers” made from solar panels that provide energy for the entire moving base camp. This portable circus would make any rockstar proud, and the staff is a well-oiled machine in its eighth year, anticipating as many of the competitors’ needs as possible. Many of the staff are former Rebelle competitors themselves, so they understand.

Then there was the impending government shutdown, which would have affected many of the routes, largely on public land. Miller scrambled to Washington, DC, to make noise on behalf of the rally, pleading for a permit to operate even if there was a shutdown.

“Both sides of the aisle went to bat for the Rebelle Rally like we’ve never seen,” Miller told the competitors in her first speech to the crowd of competitors.

She earned her permit, guaranteeing the show would go on.

Related: Two Novices and One Ford Bronco at the Rebelle Rally 

Coordinates For The Rebelle Rally Are Received Early Each Morning. Photo: Regine Trias

Coordinates for the Rebelle Rally are received early each morning. Photo: Regine Trias

The Challenge of Off-Roading with Paper Navigation 

Last year, Jill and I swapped roles, each taking a turn as driver or navigator on alternate days. That worked well for our first year, and we learned to appreciate each other’s strengths to find our groove. When things went sideways from the navigation side (which, in my opinion, is the more difficult job), we would laugh and say, “Good news! Tomorrow, you don’t have to navigate.”

But this year, Jill wanted to take on the challenge of navigating the whole rally, and I gladly handed over the ruler and plotter to her. I love to drive, especially in the dunes, so it was a great fit from my perspective. However, what I learned this year is that I left too much of the navigational burden to Jill, and I’d be a better teammate if I had studied and practiced my mapping skills as though I were to be the navigator myself.

We get our plot points between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. each morning of the competition when most people are still bleary-eyed. Jill jumped in and meticulously plotted each point, double-checking her work and measuring the distances within a tenth of a kilometer (we use the metric system for the entire rally). It was the route planning that sometimes tripped us up, and our maps are often purposely vague to add to the challenge. We’d have to get out there to see in person if the current routes were doable in our Santa Cruz, and which had changed drastically since the summer rains.

Rebelle Rally Racers Must Work Cooperatively With Their Partners And Vehicles To Check Their Plot Points Regularly. Photo: Nicole Dreon

Rebelle Rally racers must work cooperatively with their partners and vehicles to check their plot points regularly. Photo: Nicole Dreon

Friendship is the Special Sauce

Honestly, the hardest part of the rally for me was missing my family. I missed talking to my mom and sister, and I desperately missed hugs from my 14-year-old son and my husband. New friends and old friends in the rally gave me emotional support: Mercedes Lilienthal, competing for Honda, let me cry on her shoulder when I needed an outlet, Jenna Fribley and Liza Beres supplied hugs every day, and staffers Ashley Lee and Tana White provided encouragement and smiles at the start line. The value of friendship throughout the rally can’t be understated.

And Jill, of course, was my biggest supporter. She pumped me up every day and bragged about my driving to anyone who would listen. We had a few moments of getting snappy with each other like sisters when frayed nerves got the best of us, but we’d apologize and move on. That’s true friendship. We could even laugh together when it was 16 degrees overnight and our tent frosted over – we used dozens of Hot Hands hand warmers in our sleeping bags and celebrated the warmer days.

In the course of the rally, we saw numerous natural wonders like the eclipse, the Trona Pinnacles, dirt roads speckled with pyrite, and public lands that the majority of Americans never get to see. It’s an experience unlike anything else. Course director Jimmy Lewis runs the route on his dirt bike several times to check it. Even then, he stops to enjoy the view, and both he and Miller encourage the competitors to take in the natural beauty and respect it.

“Even in your lowest lows, look up and enjoy the scenery,” Lewis told us. “And appreciate that you can hardly believe you’re there, in that beautiful place.”

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Writer. Car fanatic. Mom. Kristin is the co-owner of auto review site Drive Mode Show and a nationally-published writer... More about Kristin Shaw