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Snowshoes work by distributing the weight of the person over a larger area so that the person's foot does not sink completely into the snow, a quality called "flotation". Traditional snowshoes have a hardwood frame with rawhide lacings. Some modern snowshoes are similar, but most are made of materials such as lightweight metal, plastic, and synthetic fabric.

Snowshoes remain necessary equipment for forest rangers and others who must be able to get around areas inaccessible to motorized vehicles when the snow is deep. However, today snowshoes are mainly used for recreation, primarily by hikers and runners who like to continue their hobby in wintertime. Snowshoeing is easy to learn, and in appropriate conditions is a relatively safe and inexpensive recreational activity.

Even though many enthusiasts prefer aluminum snowshoes there is still a large group of snowshoe enthusiasts that prefer wooden snowshoes. Wooden frames do not freeze as readily. Many enthusiasts also prefer wood snowshoes because they are very quiet.

Modern snowshoes use an aluminum or stainless steel frame and take advantage of technical advances in plastics and injection molding to make a lighter and more durable shoe. They require little maintenance, and usually incorporate aggressive crampons. The use of solid decking in place of the standard lacing came as a surprise to many enthusiasts, since it challenged a long-held belief that the lattice was necessary to prevent snow from accumulating on the shoe. In practice, however, very little snow comes through the openings in either type of shoe. Neoprene/nylon decks also have superior water resistance, and not stretching when wet like rawhide, or requiring annual treatment with spar varnish.

On modern snowshoes there are two main styles of binding. Fixed-rotation bindings, and full-rotation (pivot) bindings. With either binding system, the heel is free, and the difference is in how the ball of the foot is attached to the snowshoe. In fixed-rotation bindings, the binding is attached to the snowshoe with an elastic strap that brings the tail of the snowshoe up with each step. The snowshoe moves with the foot and the tail does not drag. Fixed-rotation bindings are preferred for racing. Full-rotation bindings allow the user's toes to pivot below the deck of the snowshoe. They allow the crampon cleats that are under the foot to be kicked into a slope for grip in climbing, but are relatively awkward for stepping sideways and backwards as the tail of the snowshoe can drag.