Facing My Towing Fears in the 2018 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali

Unlike some of my colleagues, my time spent in pickup trucks has been quite limited. I’ve driven them on a few occasions, off-roaded, hauled and used them to move, but one extremely important aspect of trucking life has eluded me: towing.

This is why I jumped at the opportunity to join GMC on a program designed to help us brush up on our towing skills. In my case, these are skills that don’t even exist.

I’m starting from scratch, and that might not be so bad if I was towing something small and inconsequential. But GMC loaded up trailers with 5,000-6,000 lbs of weight, thanks to a pair of Polaris RZR side-by-sides. It’s the first time I’ve towed, and it’s a doozy of a mission.

Facing Your Fears

Every minute I spend thinking about learning to tow is racked with nightmares of me doing something stupid and breaking something expensive. I’m afraid too tight of a turn will result in me clipping the rear bumper of the truck with the trailer, or going too wide will have me hitting a sidewalk or median with the trailer. What about if I have to deal with trailer sway? And then there’s the whole element of dealing with other motorists. You might call it an irrational fear, but it’s right up there with those other all-too-vivid scares like performing a speech in front of thousands only to realize you’re naked… or, you know, other really scary things like werewolves.

But GMC assures that the Sierra 1500 Denali is up to the task, and I won’t have to face any of these truck-related nightmares in real life (they can’t help with the werewolves, though). It’s packed with technology designed to make towing an easy experience. There’s a trailer brake controller and trailer sway control feature to help, along with a hill-start assist that’s automatically activated when the truck is on a 5-percent grade (or higher). Automatic grade braking is included as well, helping to slow the truck to a set speed and keep it there when traveling downhill. There’s also a transmission temperature gauge to ensure all the heavy hauling won’t cause too much stress on the vehicle.

That’s handy, but it’s still quite intimidating to be at the helm of such a heavy load. The Sierra has some grunt of its own to match up, though. Under the hood of the truck I’m piloting is a 5.3-liter V8 rated with 355 hp and 383 lb-ft of torque. It’s mated to a six-speed automatic, as well as a 4WD drivetrain, although for the purpose of all this towing, it stays in 2WD mode. The truck’s maximum trailering capability is listed at over 9,000 lbs, so it seemed like we weren’t getting too close to pushing our luck on the Sierra. The vehicle boasts a 3.42 final drive ratio, something I’m always told is very relevant to truck drivers (a lower gear ratio number results in less torque getting to the ground, increased fuel efficiency, and a lower towing capacity. A higher number results in more torque getting to the ground, increasing fuel consumption and tow capacity). There you have it, truck fans, a 3.42 final drive ratio, are we kindred spirits yet?

Likely not. So for newbies like me who aren’t used to handling a truck and trailer, GMC equips this truck with features like a backup camera, lane departure warning, forward collision alert, and low-speed automatic braking. These features are designed to ensure the safety of the motorist and others around.

ALSO SEE: 7 Differences Between the 2019 GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado

The Things I Learned

Upon meeting the truck and the load for the first time, I see it’s all hitched up. I assume it’s done properly, but I poke my head around by the connections to try to learn a thing or two. 

First of all, it’s important to know what kind of hitch you need for the job. Fortunately, the folks at GMC did all the heavy lifting and found a hitch that could properly balance the load of the trailer. Balance is one of the more important elements of towing. If there’s too much weight on the tongue of the trailer, the rear of the vehicle will sink, which will cause the front of the truck to lift, impacting steering and braking, not to mention the extra strain it puts on the suspension. The tongue weight, which is the downward force being applied to the rear of the truck, is recommended to be about 9-15 percent of the trailer weight.

Pros manage this weight distribution by moving whatever the load is so it’s neutrally balanced. In a perfect situation, 60 percent of the weight on the trailer should be on top of or in front of the axle, distributed evenly from side to side. One last trick I learned about trailering is that you should arrange the safety chains in an X pattern so that if the tongue of the trailer falls or becomes unhooked for any reason, it will fall into the intersection of the chains, which will help from causing a lot of havoc.

See, I did learn things from GMC! I also admit that I begged former AutoGuide.com truck whisperer Stephen Elmer for a bunch of Coles notes and cheat sheets on the subject.

Finally Hitting the Road

Armed with all this (almost overwhelming) information, I felt empowered to face my fears towing. Well, almost. I let my driving partner, occasional AutoGuide contributor Chad Kirchner, take the first leg of our journey. I watched how he calmly handled traffic by operating slowly and smoothly. He made his turns through intersections with a slow calmness, trusting the truck and the traffic around him. He kept his eyes on the side-view mirrors and made a note of where the truck and trailer stood in the lanes. He complained about being unable to see anything but the headlights of the Polaris in the rear-view mirror.

He made it look easy and if he could do it, then I could, too. At worst, if anything goes wrong, I can’t blame the equipment since Chad made the first leg of the journey with no issues.

I jumped into the driver’s seat after a quick stop at a gas station (the natural environment for V8-powered trucks towing 6,000 lbs of toys) and adjusted my side mirrors so I could see all the way to the end of the trailer, as well as have some visibility next to it. I also used the power adjustable pedals to give me better articulation of the controls.

I wheeled around the parking lot of the gas station to get a good understanding of the kind of turns I can perform, and then hit the open road. My first thought: “where’s all the power?” The 5.3-liter V8 was making loads of burbly noises, but the truck just wasn’t moving in a manner that was befitting of them. The Sierra can also be equipped with a more powerful 6.2-liter V8, which may be a better fit when towing.

The extra weight of the trailer was clearly sapping the agility of the truck and was especially noticeable when it came time to slow down or stop. “OK Sierra, it’s time to stop,” I said, as I was approaching an intersection. While I began braking well in advance of the intersection, I found myself having to go deeper into the pedal to get the truck to really slow down. It was really disorienting the first time, and almost disturbing too, but as I got a few more stops in, I became more aware of how much stopping power is needed to handle so much weight. The Sierra can also be equipped with a built-in trailer brake controller to utilize the trailer’s brakes if they are equipped, helping to shorten stopping distance and better deal with sway issues. 

A final part of my drive had me carving a few winding roads and dealing with elevation changes. It wasn’t like being on an exciting race track, and I instead found myself tackling these turns at lower speeds and by looking as far into them as possible, so I wouldn’t spook any other passers-by with this giant truck and trailer.

The Verdict: 2018 GMC Sierra 1500 Denali Towing Test

As we arrived at the final destination, the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah, I was far more comfortable towing than I have ever been before. I managed a nice tight turn and set the trailer up perfectly for unloading the toys perched upon them. Simply put, thanks to the GMC Sierra, and a bunch of miles with a loaded trailer, I’m far less hesitant to approach a truck with a trailer. It needs a whole different mindset to driving, one where you’re rewarded for being smooth and slow, as well as focused on the way the truck is behaving with the trailer attached.

And of course, after a successful trip learning how to tow, I promptly got my Polaris RZR side-by-side stuck in the sand and then became lost in the dunes. But that’s a story for another day (or for my savior, Corey Lewis from The Truth About Cars).