Regardless of how long you've been riding, there always seems to be that one item you have to have this winter. One of the best places to find it at affordable prices is at a ski swap - if you know what to look for.

Ski swaps function like many other types of swap meets, with one exception - they focus exclusively on winter ski equipment and apparel and occur only in the fall months -September through November. Most ski swaps are sponsored by local ski clubs, schools, or other service organizations, and act as their principal fundraiser for the year.

You also may be interested in Ski Swaps Are Bargain Hunters Mecca: Try Some Of These by OnTheSnow's Peggi Simmons' listing of fall swaps around the country.

They not only offer great deals on merchandise (at 50 to 70 percent off), but the money they raise goes to a good cause. In some cases, local ski shops will use ski swaps to liquidate last years' rental fleet. But, there are a few things to keep in mind before you venture out to sell your prized 1970 Hart Javelins.

Ski swaps are not the last bastion of dying hard goods. Whether you're buying or selling equipment, it should still have reasonable life in it and not be imminently destined for the dumpster. Some ski swaps refuse to accept equipment that is more than a few years old because they know that it will never sell. As a general rule, newer, more contemporary equipment will sell faster than older equipment.

Contact the sponsor of the ski swap if you're interested in selling used equipment, and find out when you can drop off your equipment, how much commission they take (usually 20 to 30 percent from the sale price), and what you'll need to do if your skis don't sell.

Spend some time cleaning and tuning your equipment. Make them sparkle. Put a tag on your skis indicating what the original retail price was and how much you'd like to sell them for, but get the organizer's permission. Fifty percent off of a pair of skis that are one to two years old is a good place to start.

Do some homework by locating last year's September issue of Ski or Skiing Magazine with their gear reviews. Choose several models that you're interested in and make a note of the retail price - you may be able to haggle with the seller of the skis.

Note the recommended length for your body weight and never buy a pair of skis that are too long for you just because they're a good deal. You'll end up regretting it later. Look for signs of how much they've been used. Are the topsheets badly disfigured? Are the bases or edges thin from too many tunings?

Stay away from skis with rental bindings. You can identify them by the large dial that's located under the boot. While you may get a good deal on high end skis that were rarely rented, chances are, low end rental skis were badly abused by beginners who didn't know how to take care of their skis.

In the final analysis, buying skis, snowboards, and clothing at swap meets can be risky. However, if you know what you're looking for, you can find quality equipment at dramatically reduced prices, ski them for one or two seasons, and still come out ahead.