The Ultimate Off Road challenge: 72 Women Take on the 2017 Rebelle Rally

Off Road Rebelle Rally

Women Do This Differently, and Brilliantly

Imagine this: 7 days. No paved roads. No power, no running water, no phones. And 72 women who would do it again in a second.

That is Rebelle Rally, the all-women off-road competition that took place recently, taking seasoned competitors and newbies on the trek of their lives.

On the final morning of competition, Jeeps, Fords, Toyotas and Land Rovers lined up in the California desert, the sun rising on the horizon behind them. Drivers and navigators strapped on helmets and double checked their topographical maps.

By sunset each team will have completed not just a personal achievement against the rough-set rules of nature, old-school navigation with a compass and map and the rigor of navigating a roadless landscape, but they will have won.

“Good luck out there today,” I said to Alyson Hamilton and Erin Williams as they made their way to the starting line.

“We’ve already won,” Alyson said, deadpan and heartfelt. Just getting to the final day with no breakdowns—of their Land Rover, their friendship, their teamwork and their preparation— is a win in itself. And then she grinned. This was going to be a good day.

Off Road Rebelle Rally

Contestants climb to the top of a dune to check in at a green checkpoint. Photo: Scotty Reiss

The Ultimate Team Challenge, and Just for Women

Rebelle Rally is the work of world champion rally racer Emily Miller. Her mission is to give women a clear space to compete off road without the pressure, distraction or muscling-in of men who love the sport.

After competing in the all-women Rallye Aïcha des Gazelle in Morocco, and teaching off-roading courses, Emily realized that many women wanted to learn off road driving. But a room full of enthusiastic men could be intimidating. Men can dominate the classroom and the drive experience. To learn properly, compete fairly and to approach the race their way, women needed their own event.

Meet Emily Miller, the force of nature behind Rebelle Rally

Off Road Rebelle Rally

Rebelle Rally contestants lined up for the start of the last day. Photo: Scotty Reiss

No Experience Necessary. Really?!?! Yup!

Anyone—any woman—can enter. No off-roading experience, no navigation skills, no mechanical experience necessary. You can learn all that, Emily believes.

To compete, entrants do need a worthy 4 wheel drive passenger car or truck. It can be a right-off-the-showroom-floor stock vehicle (what is called bone stock), an older but fit 4WD or a 4WD modified for the rally.

Competitors also need to come up with the $12,000 entry fee, which includes all food, permits and supplies for the week, including a team of traveling mechanics who bring a trailer filled with tools to help as needed. Much of the entry fee can be defrayed through sponsorships; from tire companies to Chevrolet and Nissan, many brands step up to help teams compete.

Off Road Rebelle Rally

A relaxed and social vibe takes over after a tough day of competition. Photo: Scotty Reiss

A Personal Challenge, a Distraction from Life and a Once in a Lifetime Experience

After a day of trekking from Joshua Tree National Park to Imperial Sands state park in Glamis, California—no pavement, mind you; only sand, rocks and the dusty desert beneath their wheels—the Rebelles arrived at the rally’s last base camp, a circle of trucks and tents deep-set into the desert.

Generators hummed powering the food truck, water truck and work lights while organizers readied for the arrival of the teams. Mechanics and helpers hung around to find out how they would be needed. Basecamp was the last checkpoint for the day’s challenge and as contestants arrived, they checked in and got to work pitching tents, prepping their gear and getting ready for the rally’s final day.

As the sun set dinner was announced; everyone in camp lined up at Drew Deckman’s food truck where the Michelin-star chef and his crew filled mess trays with a well-earned dinner. Everyone gathered at tables in the main tent and in camp chairs, catching up with each other, telling stories of the day, sharing full-face smiles and laughter.

Should you learn to off road? If you think not, think again!

Off Road Rebelle Rally

Deborah Najm and Amy Martinez beam with excitement as they ready for the last day of competition. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Are They Beautiful? Rebelle Rally Competitors Are, In Every Way

Bumping along the desert floor, gaining speed to charge up a dune to its ridge for a view of the competition field, Doug Lawyer commands his Toyota Tundra with skill through the soft desert sand. He is following a GPS map tracking the competitors on a tablet that shows the locations of checkpoints and teams. A volunteer photographer who has followed the competition all week, Doug allowed me to ride along to take photos.

During our ride, I decided to share the day on Periscope. People were fascinated and riveted, asking questions and sharing observations.

One question struck me as both rude and also, important.

“Are they beautiful?” a viewer asked about the competitors. Oh my God, yes they’re beautiful, I answered enthusiastically, thinking of the beaming smiles in the cars that morning. Beauty radiates in the care and camaraderie they feel for each other, the enthusiasm they have for each team, they pride they have in themselves.

They also perfectly dressed the part. The ‘athleisure’ movement is at its fashion height and it shone brightly during Rebelle Rally. The ensembles of boots, hiking pants, jackets, bandanas and more looked feminine, capable and badass, not at all masculine, rough or out of place.

Off Road Rebelle Rally

Kicking up dust and kicking butt sometimes requires a good pair of heels; Rebecca Donaghe demonstrates. Photo: Scotty Reiss

How Women Rally Differently Than Men

“Men would hate this,” I heard over and over again. Not only might they find the attention to fashion unnecessary, men love the gut-and-instinct race against time of other rallies. Rebelle takes persistence, precision, planning and patience.

Emme Hall followed her third-place Rebelle finish by competing in the grueling mostly men Baja 1000 rally. “I was the navigator and I brought a lot of my Rebelle experience to that right seat. We were able to use GPS in the 1000, but I zoomed in to about 100 feet so I could call corners as accurately as possible” to ensure the safety of their rally car, a 1970 VW Beetle. The lack of GPS demands precision navigation, which takes time and patience, something a lot of racers don’t have. “Later I talked with other navigators,” Emme said. “They were not as zoomed in as I was.” Exact navigation and knowing how to pick the best route is critical, though. “After all, it doesn’t matter if you’re directly on the course if you end up stuck in silt for 3 hours,” she said.

Another difference at Rebelle is that truly winning means that everyone finishes. Team are inspired to help and be helped when necessary, an amazing thing we saw often on the course. Contestants in need of help can ask for it but they sacrifice points by doing so. So, when a team needs help, others simply stop and lend a hand, knowing they may need a hand at some point, too.

Get your off road adventure on! Here’s how.

Off Road Rebelle Rally

Pat Shirley and Lisa Allen were assisted by other competitors when they got stuck in soft sand. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Beauty in Friendship and Sharing Personal Moments, Too

“I can’t wait to call my daughter tomorrow,” Christy Long shared. The next day, the last of the race, would be the first allowable day for electronics. “It’s her birthday. She’ll be two.”

Andrea Shaffer wasn’t worried about a week away from her three kids, who were with her husband. The kids would take care of their dad, she joked.

“Have you gotten your costumes yet?” Jenn Richmond asked another competitor. Halloween was just 10 days away; there would be a serious crunch when she got home.

Dinner conversation led to after-dinner relaxing and more laugher until it was time for a good night’s sleep. The women were able to wash up in the portable restrooms trucked in on trailers and if they wanted, shower in the portable showers, the first they’d seen since the start of the race.

Off Road Rebelle Rally

Competitors lined up to start the last day of the rally. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Desire to Rebelle is a Requirement; the Rest is Up To You

“I’ve never driven off road before,” confessed Pat Shirley, the competition’s oldest contestant at 77. Her son, Mike, is one of the organizers and convinced his mom to join. She enlisted her long time friend, Lisa Allen, also not a seasoned off-roader, to join. They both thought it sounded like fun and like an accomplishment worth chasing. So they signed up and drove Mike’s 10 year old Ford Expedition.

“My kids are growing up and I needed something to do,” said Michelle Davis, a baker whose passions inspire the name of her Jeep, Sugar High. With her kids out of the house most of the day, Michelle started to help her husband with his sports business and became an off-road hobbyist. But her love for baking, which takes equal parts of exactness and creativity, fuels the Rebelle in her, not just how she prepares for the race but also, how she decorates her Jeep.

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Jenn Richmond said. “I got my Wrangler for my birthday in May” she told me, and that weekend took it out to the California desert to break it in. “It was all pitted in its first week,” she grinned broadly, not worried about the rocks that ‘christened’ her new Rubicon. It would look right at home among the seasoned 4WD trucks and SUVs in the rally.

Off Road Rebelle Rally

Emily Miller plots out the day’s challenges before the last day of competition. Photo: Scotty Reiss

How the Rally Competition Works

The idea of getting lost in the desert, or worse, is terrifying. However, everyone’s safety is ensured:Emily and her team maintain GPS tracking on all competitors so they can not only tell who is still out on the course, but also, where they are in case they have to be rescued.

Each team is given a GPS locator and a walkie talkie for constant communication with rally organizers. The GPS trackers are also used to check in at rally checkpoints, essentially a list of map coordinates. Once competitors reach a flag or a map coordinate, they click the tracker to register their time and location.

There are three types of checkpoints: green, blue and black. Green checkpoints are marked with a large green banner; blue checkpoints are marked with a smaller blue flag. Black checkpoints are not marked at all; contestants have to calculate the location and check in with their GPS tracker.

Contestants are measured for accuracy, the number of checkpoints they hit and the time they take to get to them. Traveling too fast is penalized, though teams are ranked for speed, so going too slow is penalized, too. If a team gets in trouble, say, stuck in the sand, they can ask for help but are penalized.

Since needing help is common and it happens to almost everyone, it’s quite common to see one team stop to help out another. They know they’ll probably need the help at some point, too.

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Off Road Rebelle Rally

Michelle Davis and her husband Kevin dressed for a bit of glam at at the Rebelle Gala. Photo: Scotty Reiss

At the Trail’s End, a Black Tie Gala to Really Kick It Up

By the end of the rally, competitors are ready to blow off the week’s steam. An unofficial party broke out following the last night’s steak dinner. Then, a DJ spun disco music and everyone danced. By midnight everyone was feeling the exhaustion of the race and thinking ahead to the hot shower, the plush comfort of a Sheraton hotel room and the dresses, heels and lipstick that the next day promised.

The next morning, after breaking down camp, competitors, volunteers and staff trekked to San Diego for the Rebelle Gala. There, many Rebelles met up with husbands, family and friends to celebrate. During dinner Emily and her team took the stage to announce the winners. Although, everyone in the room, truly, was a winner, and that spirit shone bright in the elation, the grins and dancing into the night.

Disclosure: I attended Rebelle Rally as embedded media; travel, camping and accommodations were provided. All opinions and observations are my own.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss