The annual Rebelle Rally is the longest competitive off-road navigation rally in the United States, and it also happens to be for women. While competitors must only use analog navigation tools, behind-the-scenes Mapbox is the location technology backbone for organizers, from the tools used to design rally roadbooks and plan the course, to the apps that staff and media vehicles use to navigate during the event, to the live-tracking of teams.
This year, Mapbox Technical Account Manager Megan Danielson joined the crew of the Rebelle Rally to experience what it’s like to be on course during this thrilling event.
[3:45 AM] I wake just before my alarm. It’s a full hour before the cow bell will ring, the daily rousing call for the Rebelle Rally, but I’m already up, dressing and packing my supplies in the dark. I scramble around for my headlamp, cram my belongings into my pack, and head to the main tent for breakfast and much needed coffee. I’m not the first to wake - competitors are already heads down over their maps, discussing strategy and plotting points. This is where all 100 competitors and over 100 staff members will gather and prepare for another day at the rally.
Today my job is to help Rebelle veteran Emily Benzie, drive media staff around the course to capture photos of the competitors. We have a general plan for our day based on the media briefing that Emily Miller, Rebelle’s founder and leader of the crew, led last night to prepare us with a preview of today’s course. During the briefing we pored over a map, trying to cram fatigued minds with Miller’s tips on the best places to capture footage of the rally, which roads are washed out, and areas to avoid.
Unlike the competitors, we have our phones and access to a set of waypoints delivered through the OnX Offroad app, the main navigation app preferred by the Rebelle crew. OnX allow us to view offline maps with detailed terrain, roads, and designated Media Points provided by the course-setting crew. Most nights we can download all our offline maps via Starlink Wifi at basecamp and we are given a set of paper maps as a backup, and some days we also get a copy of a Rally Navigator roadbook that the competitors follow when on on-time or on-route enduros. We have to be out the door before the competitors to ensure we capture their progress through the first few checkpoints. We fill our water, grab an assorted lunch of Red Vines, power bars, and Cheetos - the food of champions - and hit the road.
[6:30 AM] In the car, Benzie and I are communicating in a constant stream, confirming directions and orienting ourselves to the unfolding landscape. The moon is still high in the sky and the mountains are dappled with the pastel colors of early morning light. Our photographer Paolo sits quietly in the back, nodding along to our chatter. As the navigator I oscillate between reading the OnX app, my paper map, my roadbook (if on an enduro route), and the road in front of me, searching for where they match up. As I do this, something interesting happens: the features on the map take on the reality of the landscape outside, and I feel like it’s all making sense.
We should be hitting a main road in 15.8 km,
in 10 km…
in 5 km….
Is that the main road up ahead? Take a left.
[8:00 AM] We slow to a crawl as we draw nearer to the checkpoint and use the YB Tracking mobile app to check where the competitors are, and which direction they’re coming from. For the media teams, capturing the competitors at checkpoints can be tricky - you want to position yourself in a place with high traffic but you don’t want to leave any clues that could give competitors an edge. The most competitive teams are always on the lookout for subtle hints that could lead them to a checkpoint and a highly visible media vehicle. Competitors might interpret fresh tire tracks as an indication that they’re on the right track. Luckily, we’re early to the checkpoint this morning, so we decide to drive further up the road to stash the car so Paolo find a good position to shoot.
It’s not always this easy. Benzie and I had both moments of satisfaction of being in the right place at the right time, and moments of stress and anxiety of getting lost. Throughout it all, we never stopped communicating. Good communication is key in any relationship, but especially on the rally. Being a good team means sharing credit for the victories and the mistakes you make - and learning from both. It’s a long day if you wallow in your failures. Instead we try to “ride the middle”, as Emily Miller says, and let the mistakes roll off.
10:15 AM As Paolo photographs competitors driving through, Benzie and I review the route to our next checkpoint, previewing the terrain and potential ways to navigate through it using our onX Offroad and the crew notes stored within it. We plan which roads to take, which to avoid, and estimate how long it will take. Our next location is two hours away, so we need to get a wiggle on. Benzie checks the YB tracker again and reports back that almost all of the competitors are moving on to the next section of the course. It’s time to fold up our map, fill up our water, and set off again. We take to the dirt road once more - to track down another checkpoint, take in another beautiful landscape, and let this unique adventure ride.
Time passes quickly during the rally. 8-days and over 2000 kilometers may seem like a long journey but when you are constantly moving - to the next checkpoint, the next basecamp, the next task - the days and distances just slip right by. Before I know it, the shadows are getting longer and I realize it’s time to navigate our way back to base camp.
[4:30 PM] Benzie’s Jeep passes through the blue Rebelle arch that welcomes us back to our temporary desert home. We drive past the main tent and follow the line of cars to the fuel station. The camp is abuzz with the day’s stories - triumph and failure daubed on the faces of the competitors and the support staff. But there’s little time to indulge in self-congratulation or self pity. The desert is waiting, and tomorrow will be another wonderful, unpredictable day on this wild ride. So we gather together in the main tent and share our battle stories over a good meal. The crew gathers again for the nightly meeting and preview of what we’ll be navigating tomorrow, and make sure our offline maps are downloaded and ready. Then we each head to our tents, set our alarms for 4am and snatch some rest so we can do it all over again.