In 2011, Rachelle Croft was in the midst of an intense period of motherhood. Her youngest of three sons had just turned one. Her husband, Clay, was on the road and traveling frequently. “Honestly, I was definitely a little depressed. I loved our boys but missed adventure. At that time, I didn’t realize that being a mom doesn’t mean losing who you are and what you love. Those things might get put on hold, but you never have to give up on them.”
That year, Expedition Overland premiered at an overland rally in Hollister, California, and Clay brought home a promotional card he received from Emily Miller about the Rally Aicha Des Gazelles in Morocco. Although a seed was planted that day, Rachelle admits that she wasn’t in the right headspace to turn this dream into a reality. “I thought, ‘Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice.’ I wasn’t even in a place to allow myself to dream. I couldn’t even fathom doing something like that. As women and as mothers, it’s almost like we need to give ourselves permission to go after the things we want to.”
It was only after a visit to SEMA and some encouragement from Clay that Rachelle gave herself permission to pursue her goal. After that, she attended a weekend training course with Emily Miller and Rod Hall in the Imperial Sand Dunes in California. “That was the first time I had ever driven on sand. I remember Rod Hall sitting in the back of the FJ Cruiser, telling me to go faster. We were coming up a sand dune, and I said, ‘Can I make it up there?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, let’s try it and find out!’”
Today, a lot has changed. Rachelle has three Aicha Des Gazelles Rallies under her belt. She competed in the inaugural Rebelle Rally and won the 4×4 class and Bone Stock division in the 2019 Rebelle Rally with her partner Taylor Pawley. Rachelle is also the co-founder and CFO, director of media partner relations and logistics, expedition leader, and lead driver of Expedition Overland.
As a young girl growing up in Clinton, Montana, learning to drive by sitting on her dad’s lap and steering through the countryside before her foot could even touch the gas pedal, she’s come a long way. The motto “start somewhere” is one that Rachelle Croft truly lives by.
There is a ton of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears that go into running Expedition Overland. What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m usually in the office for five to six hours a day, doing administrative tasks such as answering and writing emails, reviewing contracts, diving into logistics for trip planning (such as permits and insurance), a little bit of PR work, and checking in with team members. I handle the regular communications with sponsors, help Clay and the editing team review and edit footage when we’re getting close to the final version, and brainstorm new content and ways to serve our audience. We have recurring team meetings every Monday, sometimes more frequently, depending on which projects are coming up.
Expedition Overland is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Did you ever think it would run for a decade? Was it meant to be a short-term thing? A long-term endeavor?
It was always supposed to be a long-term thing. When Clay and I decided to start Expedition Overland, we wanted it to be a successful, full-time job, and we wanted to be able to bring other team members and friends on full time if they wanted it. Our first vision statement revolved around building an empire to inspire people. From day one, Clay and I have wanted to inspire the world, and that takes a lot of time. You can’t do it overnight. We’re both very big dreamers and don’t know how to do things small. It’s just not who we are. We try to be very intentional and are always asking ourselves what the long-game or long-term goal is.
At the same time, we hold it very loose. Every year, we ask ourselves if we should keep going, do something different, or put it all on hold to focus on family. If our family decides it isn’t working for us anymore, we need the freedom to choose what’s best. We’ve always had the big picture in mind but re-visit every year, continue to put one foot in front of the other, year after year, and now, before you know it, it’s been 10 years.
You’re a busy lady, juggling parenthood (raising three boys), running a business, managing a team, and winning the 2019 Rebelle Rally, while simultaneously cultivating friendships and a strong marriage. Is work/life balance possible? If so, how do you manage it?
I stressed for a long time over work/life balance, believing it had to be an equal 50/50. Like any mom, I want to do a good job of being there for our kids. I also love what I do and want to go after things that fill me up. So, I just recently started to let this concept of equal work/life balance go because it likely won’t happen. There are always seasons in life where the kids need more time, or work needs more time. I try hard to listen and feel out where our family and kids are at. Sometimes I just need to go on a coffee date or extra outing when they need more time with us.
You are also a firm believer in scheduling time for regular self-care. Can you tell us more about that?
If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you can’t take care of the other people in your life. Well, you can for a while, but will eventually burn out. I have been more disciplined in this area of my life over the past year and notice the benefits—my energy levels have improved, and I just feel better.
Prioritizing exercise or a workout every day helps create energy in the body first thing in the morning that continues for the rest of the day. I’ll either go by myself or with Clay, and take some time to listen to music, a podcast, or learn something new. We’ve shifted working out from a short-term goal (for example, an upcoming rally or bathing suit season) to something that we do for the rest of our lives because we want to feel healthy and strong.
You mentioned going after things that fill you up. What fills your tank, so to speak?
It took me a while to figure out what those things are. As women, we are programmed to make sure everyone else is okay. I had to re-learn what I liked and what I wanted. There was a season when I tried a lot of new things that I had always wanted to do. Now, the things that I enjoy doing get my blood pumping and make me feel present in the moment.
In the winter, I’ll go skiing by myself during the weekdays and with family on the weekends. Clay and I also love to scuba dive. We can’t talk about work while scuba diving, so we have to be really present in the moment and enjoy what’s around us. I love the sun and the water, so anything that has to do with those is the ultimate recharge. It’s all about finding out what works for you.
Rallying fills me up in other ways. It’s challenging, difficult, and not relaxing, but it’s something I’m in charge of with my teammate. I can shut everything else out and focus on that one activity. There are no phones or internet allowed during the rally, and it is nice to shut those parts of your brain off that are in overdrive during the rest of the year. Rallying is incredibly gratifying because I’m constantly learning something new and pushing myself to be better. I always come out feeling tired, but full in other ways.
How has what you’ve learned from rallying trickled over into overlanding and vice versa?
Rallying taught me mental toughness and how to overcome really hard things in the moment. It taught me the power of a positive mindset and attitude when you’re dealt [tough situations], you’re very tired, or are trying to get through long and difficult days. Rallying also showed me I could do the things I didn’t think I was capable of doing on my own. Doing a hard thing on your own really shows you who you are.
Rallying also taught me how to communicate with teammates, which lent well to working with a big team on Expedition Overland trips. I learned how to be a better team player and a better leader. I love passing on what I’ve learned to other team members as well. At the end of the day, everyone on this earth is trying to figure out why they are here and what they are here to do. It’s fun to spend a long time in a vehicle with someone and see what makes them tick. Putting yourself in situations where you can bring those things out both in yourself and others is a really good thing.
Of course, there are also tangible skills that I picked up like driving skills, vehicle maintenance, tire pressure, and a ton of recovery.
What does it take to win the Rebelle Rally?
It takes time. It takes experience knowing who you are, having a great teammate, and knowing them well and respecting each other. It also requires knowing how to pace yourself over long periods, being consistent, and not giving up. Many teams peak early in the rally, and it’s difficult to push past days four and five and fight through to the other side. The more experience you have (such as long-term travel, mental toughness, overlanding), the more successful you’ll be at pushing through that wall and fighting through until the end of the rally. Through all of this, you want to have fun and enjoy what you’re doing at the same time.
You and your teammate, Taylor Pawley, held the lead for all seven days of the 2019 Rebelle Rally. As a team, how did you cope with the pressure of maintaining the top spot?
We weren’t expecting it. Taylor and I wanted to start the rally off on a really good foot and were able to do that the best we could. Then our goal was just to be consistent for the rest of the rally. We tried to maintain consistency and set goals for each day. You can only focus on so much at a time, especially as the fatigue sets in. We broke things down into manageable pieces. We were also very flexible with each other. Circumstances change, and you have to be able to roll with it. Sometimes, we would do a gut check and subsequently change up our day. Sometimes, we would figure out a better option that wasn’t in the plan.
Ultimately, I would say it was trying to be as consistent as possible, trying not to let the stress of holding the position get to us. It was really hard. We just had to get into the vehicle and think about the next thing we needed to do that day while blocking out everything else. When we did make mistakes, we tried not to dwell on them—this was also really hard. I’m still working on that one.
The Rebelle Rally is one of a few women-centric events and communities within the overland space. Since Expedition Overland’s inception 10 years ago, how have you seen the overland industry change for women?
The industry has grown so much. I remember noticing during the first couple of Expos that I went to in 2011 and 2012, that I was one of the very few women there. Every year, I would see that number double. There are so many more women traveling [solo] and tackling an adventure with their husbands, families, or friends.
I always try to challenge women to ask themselves what role they would like to play during an upcoming trip. What excites you about the trip? Get involved in the trip planning process from the very beginning. You’ll have a much better time if you’re involved in the adventure, instead of being taken along for the ride. Make it personal for you. What do you want to do, see, and experience? There is a snowball effect here—once you get out there, you realize there is even more you want to learn. These experiences build the confidence to go forward and sign up for a class or learn more about a certain topic.
In the past 10 years, I’ve seen more women teachers in the forefront, more groups of women forming, and women creating spaces to involve even more women. The Ladies’ Offroad Network and Women Overlanding the World are great examples of this. When I first started, I didn’t know there were other women out there doing it. Now, there are dedicated spaces for us to ask advice, get together, and learn from each other. It’s a truly awesome thing.
You have expressed a desire to teach other women driving skills. What is the vision or inspiration behind this?
It all goes back to the concept that if you can teach anyone a small skill, they, in turn, gain confidence because of that one small action. The first time I did something difficult, I came back a different person. I didn’t always have to rely on someone else because I knew I could do it. If I can instill a few of these skills in other women, they gain confidence and improve other areas of their lives.
Women are really good drivers—they just don’t [always] know it. They’re usually a little more patient, a little more detailed. Women have approached me and said, “I could never take my husband’s car out, never put it in four-wheel drive.” And I say, “Let’s do it!” They then realize they don’t have to be afraid of it anymore. Driving is something we do every day. If you can be a better driver, you can carry that confidence over into trying new things like off-roading, a new job, a DIY project, anything.
image credit: Laura Titensor
One of your dreams is to drive the Skeleton Coast of Namibia. What is one must-have item that you would bring in your toolkit on a trip like this?
Ratchet straps are my number one go-to toolkit item. This comes from experience. During my third rally in Morocco, a spring broke on our vehicle, and we ratcheted the frame back down onto the coil springs and were able to drive all day and successfully return to base camp that night. You can hold a lot of things together with ratchet straps and put a lot of pressure on them without using a ton of upper body strength.
What are some other life hacks you’ve discovered while on the road?
Bring a good pillow. If we’re going out in a trailer or camper, I take my pillow with me from home. If I’m going lightweight, I take a travel pillow; the Thermarest brand pillow is my favorite, and REI has a good one as well. The inflatable pillows just aren’t the same, and I like a big fluffy pillow to prevent headaches and neck problems while traveling. A good night’s sleep is everything when you’re on the road for long periods.
I also hate drinking water, so I travel with Gatorade or pouches of Propel electrolyte powder to cover up the taste of bad water and keep my body hydrated.
Do you have any other favorite road trip beverages or snacks?
SmartFood white cheddar popcorn, almonds, good iced coffee, or a can of yerba mate.