Towing Doesn’t Have to Be As Difficult As Bedtime

June 22, 2018 by Carly Schaffner, @carlyschaffner

We all know that mom can tote. But can she tow?

GMC, the luxury truck division of General Motors, offered me the chance to find out. The vehicle: a 2018 Sierra 1500 Denali crew cab pickup with a 5.3-liter V8 engine mated to an 8-speed transmission. The locale: the Utah desert.

My family is active in winter and summer sports so I am capable of loading and hauling bulky equipment and gear. However, towing seems a bit out of reach. I am brave enough to at least try and join the ranks of the outdoor enthusiasts whose vehicles enable them to pursue activities such as boating, biking, camping or horseback riding. And in this case, four-wheeling.

Seventy-five percent of all light-duty pickup owners tow, and 30 percent of them partake twice a month, according to GMC.

Truck makers have made towing accessible to almost anyone. Most new trucks, including the GMC Sierra, now boast a bevy of features that enhance visibility, manage braking on the trailer and keep it from swaying across the road.

My towing experience left me with a sense of accomplishment and the confidence that I could do it again.

I landed at the St. George airport and arrived at the Red Mountain Resort by early afternoon. Always enamored by beautiful Utah’s red, rocky landscape I headed outside to explore the grounds.

Through the desert shrubbery I saw the rigs we would drive 150 miles to Coral Pink Sand Dunes and through Zion National Park: full-size GMC pickups hooked to trailers loaded with the Polaris RSRs, or “side by sides.” The load weighed in at 5,000 pounds.

Carly Schaffner driving a 2018 Sierra 1500 Denali through Zion National Park.

Carly Schaffner driving a 2018 Sierra 1500 Denali through Zion National Park. (Photo: GMC)

Before embarking on our Utah adventure, Chris Carino, lead development engineer for GMC full-size pickups, gave a detailed presentation on towing. He highlighted a few technical nuggets to consider about the truck’s capability, the hitch and the trailer.

Important to note is the maximum trailer weight rating, which tells the driver how much the pickup can tow. The Sierra 1500 Denali with a 5.3-liter V8 engine can handle up to 9,800 pounds.

It’s also crucial to consider the hitch itself. It should keep the trailer as level as possible and fit “snug” inside the coupler, which secures the truck to the trailer, Carino said.

In addition, the downward force the trailer exerts on the hitch, or the tongue weight, should be 10 to 15 percent of the total loaded trailer weight. “Balance is everything,” he said.

The Sierra I drove comes equipped with a trailering package. It includes a trailer hitch platform and the wiring harness, which syncs the electrical components like the trailer’s brake lights and turn signals.

While backing up the truck before hitching, GMC’s rear-vision camera makes proper alignment a cinch. Now all new vehicles are required to have backup cameras for safety, but for towing, a world before this modern amenity is hard to envision.

Once the trailer was hooked up to the truck, it was time to drive.

As a towing novice, it was intimidating for me to navigate the rig around parking lot obstacles that would normally seem harmless. I kept one thought in my mind: make wide turns.

The 5,000-pound trailer load Carly Schaffner towed though the Utah desert. (Photo: Carly Schaffner/

Carino had instilled in me a healthy fear when he described how the truck and trailer could easily get stuck in a jackknife position if turns were made too tightly. I overcompensated by hugging the outside lane line as tightly as possible whenever confronted with a turn. With a few under my belt, it felt more instinctive.

Other than the fear of jackknifing, which eventually ceased, the major difference in driving a truck hauling 5,000 pounds of cargo is the resistance felt under the pedals.

For example, braking can be tedious since ample time is needed to slow down, but it’s not that different. Slamming on the brakes to avoid a collision in any scenario is just bad driving.

The driver needs to leave a four-second count from the vehicle in front, according to Carino. Extra room for merging onto highways is recommended. My first try at merging was nerve-wracking. Though the Sierra is powerful, I was instructed to apply gradual pressure. It’s not like zooming up the freeway onramp and approaching traffic at 60 mph.

Trucks today are designed to make it easy. Activate the tow/haul mode and the transmission will help the truck slow using “engine braking” instead of burning out the brakes. This setting, which requires a simple click on the stalk, alters the transmission for maximum engine power and stronger acceleration.

The Sierra Denali’s automatic transmission shifted smoothly during the drive. A selection mode also lets the driver choose the range of gears to stay within. For example, when going downhill, select lower gears to control the engine and vehicle speed.

An available trailer sway control mitigates excessive movement from the trailer in high-speed winds, uneven roads or drafts coming off passing big rigs.

If stopped on a 5 percent grade or higher, hill start assist will hold the truck in place until the driver accelerates. This prevents the entire rig from rolling backward. GMC also offers an integrated braking system that will brake the trailer’s brakes simultaneously with the truck’s.

For my peace of mind, I checked the mirrors constantly to make sure the trailer was lined up with the truck. GMC has enlarged mirrors for drivers who don’t want to deal with visual challenges. A driver travelling with a massive horse trailer that just meets the weight rating may want extra visibility. I was towing a trailer that was well within the truck’s limit so standard mirrors worked well.

GMC’s all-new 2019 Sierra 1500 will come out later this year with even more towing technology. The SLT and Denali trims will come standard with the ProGrade Trailering System that includes hitch guidance on the rear-view camera, automatic brake assist that will depress the brakes when aligning to the trailer for more precision, a lighted hitch area and integrated braking. The infotainment screen also will give the driver an assist with a pre-departure checklist.

Considering all the base towing technology that made the job easier, I’m ready to try my hand at the next level. Perhaps I should consider another glamping weekend with the family. The 2019 Sierra seems like it could handle a 25-foot Airstream trailer just fine. And so could I.

Read Next: Quick Facts to Know: 2019 GMC Sierra 1500

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