Losing the car key in the sand was lucky, in a way, because it led us to John Payne. He's a farmer, a deputy fire warden and, if that's what you need, a breaker into cars - specifically, our five-year-old Austin Marina sedan, whose popularity can be measured by the scarcity of major parts, let alone keys, on this side of the Atlantic. While Payne, chief locksmith for the U.S. delegation to the Paris peace talks in the early '70s, calmly fashioned a new car key from air, a mother wren circled the burned-out hulk of a 1938 Plymouth by the garage.

"I want to get her fixed up," Payne said, gesturing toward the car, "as soon as that wren gets her new-born our of glove compartment." Looking fondly at the old hulk, he added that he'd gotten it in a straight-up trade for an old juke box,"trading nothing for nothing."

Twenty minutes' work and our vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina had been salvaged - without punching a hole in my theory that an adult and two teenagers can camp out in relative bliss for $150 to $200 a week,wrapping in all costs, including locksmiths.

So we returned to our beach paradise and continued our assault on the motel and beach cottage industry by showing that campers do it for less. An adult and a couple of kids can get by with about $150 capital investment starting from scratch - sleeping begs, two pups tents or one larger tent, a lantern, an ice chest and a small portable barbecue. Steal a couple of pans from the kitchen, plunk down about $30 at your local supermarket for a bunch of staples and some charcoal, make a pit stop at a country fruit and vegetable stand, and you're in business. It's probably a good idea before you leave to go to your favorite restaurant serving spicy food, because to be honest, what you fix and what the restaurants in the area serve will probably be pretty bland.

Your main expense while camping, aside from what you cook, will be gallons of liquid refreshment and more gallons of bug repellant - none of the latter products is that effective, but you can try kidding yourself).

It doesn't seem to matter what you buy in the small Outer Banks markets with their inflated prices - you'll end up spending about $5 a day for incidentals.

Where you camp depends on how you rank closeness to the beach as opposed to shade and hot water. The National Park Service has five camp-sites virtually on the beach over the almost hundred-mile length of the Outer Banks, at Oregon Inlet, Salvo, Cape Hatteras, Frisco and Ocracoke.

The drawbacks are no reservations, no hot water and few trees. Cape Woods Camper Park in Buxton, about a mile from the beach and almost in view of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, has lots of trees and plenty of hot water, and you can reserve a specific site (try number 54).

The Park Service charges $4 a night for tent camping. Cape Wood $5. In case, splurge, spend a buck and drive five minutes to the beach.

At the beach you can catch your dinner even if you aren't devoted angler. Five dollars will rent a pole and tackle for the days, and that expense can be reduced to almost zero if you participate in the National Park Service fishing program. The rangers will teach you how and provide everything but bait.

That's only of the many bits of largesse provided by the Park Service for the taking.

Among the most interesting are instructions in the elements of surfing by using a "boogie" board - a shorter, fatter and easier-to-learn-on styrofoam cousin of the sleek surfboard.

There's also a snorkeling program with the Park Service providing flippers, masks and snorkels. Pamlico Sound, which runs down the west side of the Outer Banks, isn't exactly the Carribean, but it does fine for learning the basics of skin diving and there are plenty of crabs to see.

But face it: The main attraction of the Outer Banks is the beach - even in the peak summer season there are miles and miles of safe beaches with hardly a soul in sight.

The Gulf Stream keeps the water at a pleasant temperature, and surfboarding types say it's the best surf on the East Coast, despite the scoffs of westerners.

And whenever you get tired of the beach there's always that bird's nest of a '38 Plymouth to look at, complete with the tell-tale four sailing ships hood ornament. nating rapids-and-pool river. The rapids are complex beyond description