This plant is native to North and Central America and parts of Eurasia. Carex echinata is a plant of wet forests, marshes, and mountain meadows of moderate elevation. It is commonly associated with peat bogs.
Carex echinata has a solid, ridged stem that may exceed 1 metre (3 ft 3 in) in height and it has a few thready leaves toward the base. The inflorescences are star-shaped spikelets and are 3–15 millimetres (0.12–0.59 in) wide.