Today, 110 women will begin an off-road competition like no other. They’ll use nothing more than a paper map and compass to navigate more than 1,600 miles of off-road trails throughout the California and Nevada desert, as the Rebelle Rally, the all-women’s off-road navigational rally now in its seventh year, begins near Lake Tahoe. The grueling 10-day navigational competition is the longest in the U.S., is GPS and cell phone-free and nothing to take lightly. I know; I competed in the Rebelle Rally in 2021, courtesy of Porsche.
The Rebelle is special in the world of off-roading, both because it’s open only to women, and because it is not a race about speed. It’s a competition more easily characterized as a precision off-road trek that relies on driving and navigational skill.
Competitors in teams of two (one driver, one navigator) go completely off the grid. No cell phones or GPS devices are permitted. Instead, you use printed topographical maps, paper map rulers and compasses (properly declinated based on where you are in the desert) to find both marked and unmarked checkpoints along the route.
To figure out distances, you use a rally computer that has to be calibrated to your tire size and constantly-changing tire pressure as you navigate everything —from soft dunes, to sharp rock fields, to tricky slot canyons. You’re responsible for everything from small mechanical repairs to getting yourself unstuck.
Competitors are up before sunrise, and often return to the roving base camp past sunset. It’s not, however, all heat and hardship. Each night — with the exception of one self-camp night when teams camp without the support of the Rebelle staff and mechanics — the women eat a gourmet dinner cooked by Chef Drew Deckman; they camp together, and are woken by a cowbell that Emily Miller, the race founder and powerhouse behind the Rebelle, rings each morning at 5:00 am.
The course is a secret to everyone except Miller and a handful of the 110 support staff she employs to keep competitors safe and on track during the 10-day event.
“You know what it’s like to be able to sit there at five o’clock in the morning, with a cup of coffee and a headlamp and plotting a latitude and longitude on a piece of paper,” Miller tells me over Zoom before this year’s competition. “It’s just insane, and it’s a skill that probably, like, point .0009 percent of the population in the world know how to do, and you learn it, and you do it and you do it really well,” Miller says.
Emily Miller is well known in off-road racing. She cut her teeth under famed off-road legend Rod Hall, who died in 2019. She spent years riding along with Hall and his co-driver as he raced, and says she tried to learn everything she could from him. She was the first woman to solo drive the grueling Vegas to Reno off-road race in 2005. And she and her partner, Sam Coburn, won. She’s been mentoring and teaching women in the off-road space ever since.
“My lifelong mission is to give women an opportunity to prove just how badass they are,” Miller goes on. “It brings me really great joy … I will never stop with the mission of showcasing the cars in your driveway are more capable than you think, and’ll take you to probably the coolest adventures,” she says.
This year, Miller and longtime Rebelles Emme Hall, Rebecca Donaghe, Lyn Woodward and Sedona Blinson all participated in the Rebelle Rally-supported Rally Jameel in Saudi Arabia. The Rally Jameel was the first of its kind, a women-only offroad rally, in a country where women only got the legal right to drive last year.
Hall is a well-known automotive journalist, and this year’s MC for the Rebelle’s Live Feed, which will provide coverage of the event for the next 10 days. Donaghe is an extremely skilled navigator who’s been competing in the Rebelle since the beginning. Woodward is another automotive journalist, and a five-year veteran of the Rebelle; Blinson is her navigator, who happens to be a six-year veteran of the Rebelle.
Each October, women from all over the world make their pilgrimage to the starting line, which is in a different location each year. This year, women from ages 23 to 74, who hail from 24 different states and four different countries will descend on South Lake Tahoe for tech inspections and the start of the event. The Rally says 54 competitors are returning Rebelles and 56 are rookies, just like I was last year.
Again, teams are made up of two competitors each: one driver, one navigator. You can switch roles if you like, but most teams — including mine — stick with what ever roles they’re drawn to and skilled at. I was a driver while my partner, photographer Beth Bowman, was a navigator. You never know what each day will bring: whether you’ll start with a time-speed-distance stretch (TSD or Enduro for short), which requires competitors to pass through timed gates at precise (down to the second) moments based on their start time. Or if you’ll end up trying to navigate to unmarked checkpoints in the “shitty dunes,” trying not to get stuck, or spending hours digging yourself out.
During tech inspection, competitors get a tracking device attached to their vehicles backed by Iridium, a satellite company that provides tracking for many off-grid races, and also by Mapbox, a navigation company. Each team gets a YB tracker, which are often used in sailboat racing, to check-in at both marked and unmarked checkpoints.
Competitors are divided into two classes: X-Cross and 4×4. X-Cross is for two-wheel and all-wheel drive vehicles, while 4×4 is for those with transfer cases and locking differentials. There are also Bone Stock and Electrified designations. Bone Stock is for those like my team that have no off-road modifications to tackle the Rebelle. And Electrified is reserved for those vehicles with hybrid or fully-electric powertrains. The number of EVs competing this year (backed by OEMs) has grown to seven.
Before the start, competitors pull staggered start times from a hat. After the 4:30 am wake up and after packing up their tents and gear, teams congregate in the base camp tent to get their list of checkpoints, and begin plotting them on topographical maps that Miller prints on a large-format printer she has at her home. Teams work together to check each other’s math on Enduro sections, and then doublecheck their points, though each designation has a different route, basing their calculations on the capabilities of the vehicle the teams are in.
Competitors are allowed to help each other whether that means by digging out, rescuing, changing a tire or checking others’ math, but outside assistance is strictly prohibited. If a team needs staff help on the trail (whether mechanical or otherwise) they are penalized. A highly-skilled team of mechanics are available at base camp, but using the mechanics means also taking a penalty.
When teams locate a checkpoint (or what they think might be a checkpoint location, since many are unmarked), they stand as close to the target as possible and hit the YB tracker, which returns a GPS location. Green checkpoints are the easiest to get; they’re marked with big green flags, typically visible from far away. These are worth the most points, and are required to advance. Blue checkpoints can be either a flag or small blue pole hidden in a bush or behind a rock. These are often more difficult to both navigate and drive to. Black checkpoints are the most difficult to find, have the smallest target area and have no markers.
Points are awarded based on how near to the bullseye competitors are when they hit the tracker. And whoever finishes the 10-day stint with the most points wins their designation.
We’ll have more daily digests from the event as it progresses, but the Rebelle is always an adventure. Last year, a massive haboob (or sandstorm) forced us to sleep in our cars, and shelter in place as the base camp near Death Valley was torn to shreds by 60 mile per hour winds. In years past, competitors have faced everything from snow and ice to desert temperatures and rain.
In our increasingly connected world, the handful of people with the know-how and skills to take on such a challenge is already incredibly small. Toss in the fact that the Rebelle Rally is an off-road competition for women, and the field shrinks even more. But interest in the Rebelle is growing.
This year, the competition sold out before last year’s event even began — a first for the Rally. In 2022, eight different OEMs are fielding teams, and the Rebelle has expanded its support for EVs competing in the event.
“Putting this together is really hard. How we made this course to be able to work on public land, and we built the format, and then we built the scoring system. And we built the systems to support it with technology,” says Miller. That technology help keeps the competitors safe, and traceable should anything go sideways. Stay tuned for more from the Rebelle as the competition begins.