Waterville Valley, N.H., opened one recent morning with only one slope in operation and 700 people drove into the parking lot. They weren't eager to line up to ski one slope. The reason most of them were there was to take advantage of an increasingly popular service for skiers - ''demo days.''
A demo day is when ski equipment suppliers pull their vans into a ski area, lay out a slew of new skis, boots, and bindings, then let anyone who wishes try them out free of charge. That can be invaluable for anyone thinking of buying new equipment.
In one demo day you can try a number of pairs of skis or boots without having to fork up rental fees. The more disciplined a trial system you have, however, the more successful your demo day is likely to be. Of course, never test more than one kind of equipment at a time. Stepping into new boots and new skis at the same time won't tell you what you want to know about either.
If you're comparing skis, it will help to pinpoint precisely what you hope to learn from your on-slope testing. By reading up a bit beforehand in the ski magazines, you can probably narrow the number of ski models you might buy to three or four.
The homework should also help in formulating three or four questions you'd like answered. Do you want a ski the same length as the one you have, or a longer or shorter one? Do you want a new giant slalom ski (good for cruising, more stable at high speeds), a slalom ski (quicker turning), or perhaps a recreational sport ski (easier to turn, more forgiving, but perhaps also more difficult to carve and hold on hard-pack and ice)? Or perhaps your question will be, ''Which mid-priced recreational ski handles best on hard-pack for me?''
Keep in mind that all the demonstration models will be supertuned, probably making them feel better than your old pair. Comparing new ski with new ski should tell you a lot about what you want to buy.