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Rebelle Rally pits off-road prowess against your personal psyche

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Now that I’ve completed my first female-only Rebelle Rally, people keep asking me: How was it? My answer is this: Exactly what I thought it would be and completely different at the same time.

You know going into it that it’s a test of skill and endurance. You know you won’t have your phone or any GPS for a lifeline. You know you’re probably going to get stuck at least once. You know there’s going to be camping and a lot of time spent with your partner. You can prepare for all that with gear and conversations about how you handle stress.

But the biggest lesson learned is you don’t know what you don’t know until you don’t know it.

Prior to the rally, my biggest fear was being cold – you’re talking to the girl who uses heated seats in the summer. And I obsessed about route planning.  But I thought I had the navigation thing nailed – I could plot 20 longitude and latitude points in a half hour, I felt confident in my compass skills, and I had practiced the time/distance math for the timed portions of the rally so much I was dreaming about it.

Turns out some battery-powered heated blankets and socks solved my biggest fear. And that thing I was most confident about became a nightmare when we were lost in a maze of washes for two hours with no roads and no visible way out.

So, here are just a few of the things I didn’t know I didn’t know.

Keep calm, ask for help

The biggest lessons learned during the Rebelle Rally wasn’t about how to read or map or drive a vehicle off road – though you quickly become adept at both of those things. Nope. You learn a lot about your inner psyche and how to handle stress.

Being lost in that wash was probably one of the scarier things I’ve experienced in my life. When I’m in an unfamiliar situation or failing at something, my default is to double down and try harder – or as I like to say: Muscle my way through. Sometimes that just doesn’t work.

The problem with a wash is even when you know which way you need to go (3 kilometers in the direction of 43 degrees), you can’t always go there because of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

After two hours of driving back and forth, looking for a path, we finally encountered a couple of fellow Rebelles who were driving 4X4 vehicles (we were in the crossover class with the Hyundai Santa Cruz). We asked for help.

With a Ram 1500 in front of us and a Jeep Wrangler 4xe behind us, we were able to take a path that wasn’t a path knowing if we got stuck dropping into a dry riverbed or crawling up a steep rocky hill, we’d have help getting unstuck.

I always look at asking for help as a last resort (I can do it myself, dammit), but if we’d asked for help a little sooner we wouldn’t have timed out of our checkpoint and we probably would have made it to camp before dark that night.

Rebelle Rally Stage 2 Hyundai Santa Cruz

One of the best things about the Hyundai Santa Cruz in the Rebelle Rally is the tailgate provided a flat work space when we needed to re-group in the field. (Photo courtesy of the Rebelle Rally)

Have a safe word

I know safe words are usually associated with matters of a more intimate nature, but let me tell you, there is nothing more intimate than spending 10 hours in a car, then sleeping in a tent with a person who is not your significant other. So, you need to prepare for that.

My partner and I talked a lot about how we handle stress, what we do when we’re hangry, how we calm down, what talks us off a ledge, etc. But even with all that prep, you never know what might trigger you after, say, driving in circles for two hours in the middle of the desert.

So, we had a safe word: Watermelon. And we decided that if either one of us used the word, the other needed to back off immediately, we needed to take a beat and get out of the car, then come back together and work through the problem.

Thankfully, neither of us needed that red luscious fruit during our 10-day marathon.

Pack lighter

When you’re getting ready to embark on a 10-day adventure in the desert that forces you to sleep in a tent for 10 days, and you’ve never done anything like that before, you will overpack. So, you have to balance the things that will make you thrive (like a heated blanket for 30-degree nights) and the things that will weigh you down (the sleeping bag liner was overkill). You have to ration your clothes (do you really need new pants every day?) and think clearly about the food you’ll actually eat in 80 hours on the road (four bags of gluten-free pretzels, yes; a case of blueberry RX Bars, no).

But the ins and outs of packing are one of those things you don’t know until you know it. You’ve got to experience it to understand it. I will say I brought one too many layers (the waffle shirt and pullover and extra jacket were overkill) and way too much food. I also probably didn’t need a case of AA and AAA batteries (each) and three sets of erasable pens.

The two things I’m glad we didn’t scrimp on: a six-person pop-up tent and my ExPed sleeping pad.

Look up

The Rebelle Rally traverses more than 1,600 miles of some of the most beautiful untouched scenery in the United States. Living in Chicago, I forget there are places you can go where you won’t see another person for hours, perhaps days.

And sometimes you get so focused on finding a road or checkpoint, you forget to do something simple: Look up.

Thankfully, there were times when both my partner and I would stop the car in the middle of a dirt road and say: Hey, let’s just take a moment to appreciate this.

I’m really glad we did that. Because they took our phones away, we couldn’t take digital photos, but I did bring disposable point-and-shoot cameras, and I can’t wait to take it in to get developed.

Rebelle Rally Stage 3 Hyundai Santa Cruz

The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz was kitted out with a custom wrap, bed rack by Rally Innovations, Falken Tires, Gear Off Road wheels and a 1-inch lift by Truxxx. (Image courtesy of the Rebelle Rally)

Show gratitude

After one of our more frustrating days, we encountered a team who also had a bad day. And while we were still beating ourselves up a bit, the other team took a different approach. They took the time to have fun and explore. They said we get to do this. It’s not a have to, it’s a want to, so we’re going to enjoy every moment.

My entire Rebelle Rally experience pivoted in that moment. I was in the middle of doing something amazing, something few people will ever choose to or get to do. And it’s awesome.

One of the toughest physical moments of the rally was when we got stuck in the sand dunes at the bottom of a basin. I was sitting in the driver’s seat thinking: F*ck. But then I looked out the window and four other teams were rushing down a sand dune with shovels in hand shouting: “Hold on! We’re coming!”

That, right there, became the best moment of the rally for me. Through friendships made, teamwork and a fair bit of gumption, we got unstuck.

And we wouldn’t have even gotten to that moment without sponsors like Hyundai Motor America (who provided the vehicle and paid our entry fees), Bose (who gave us music to chill while we drove in circles for two hours), Rally Innovations (who provided the bumper bar and bed racks that held our MaxTrax), She Buys Travel (who helped us purchase some of our gear) and Truxxx (who gave us a 1-inch lift to help us over rocky terrain).

So, I’m thankful for all of it – getting stuck, the life-long friends, the beautiful scenery, the lessons learned and all the help along the way.

I can do hard things

There’s nothing like spending 10 days in the desert to show your mettle. When I have off-roaded or camped previously it’s been in carefully curated situations with someone else telling me where to go or digging me out or setting up my tent.

But all this was on me.

Making decisions about which trails to take and tools to use. Setting up camp, taking down camp. Figuring out when to ask for help and when to forge ahead. Using an air compressor, learning how to use recovery equipment, changing 70-pound tires. Carrying my own gear.

Sometimes it was laughable, sometimes it was stressful. But there was no “adult” in the room planning my route or taking care of my things.

I did that.

Which tells me I can do a lot more.

Rebelle Rally Prologue Hyundai Santa Cruz

During one of our trainings, we formed an alliance with a couple other rookie teams and called ourselves the “Plotty Hotties.” We had regular Zoom calls to chat through our problems pre-event, and they were among the teams that helped us dig out when we got stuck in the dunes. (Image courtesy of the Rebelle Rally)

The bottom line on my first Rebelle Rally

Doing the Rebelle Rally is kind of like running a marathon. You know when you start there is a finish line, but you just can’t see it. You know it’s going to be hard, and you know you’ll probably hit a wall (hopefully not literally) at some point along the way.

But if you tell yourself you can do hard things, and you stop and enjoy the scenery once in a while, you’ll have a great story to tell.

And you’ll meet some phenomenal women who can also do hard things.

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Editor’s note: All photos on this page courtesy of the Rebelle Rally.

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Jill Ciminillo

Jill Ciminillo is the Managing Editor for Pickup Truck + SUV Talk as well as a Chicago-based automotive writer, YouTube personality and podcast host, with her articles and videos appearing in outlets throughout the U.S. Additionally, she co-hosts a weekly radio show on car stuff for a local Chicago station. Previously, Jill has been the automotive editor for both newspaper and broadcast media conglomerates. She is also a past president for the Midwest Automotive Media Association and has the distinction of being the first female president for that organization. Jill is also currently a juror for the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year (NACTOY).

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